Catastrophe Math

By Carl Zimmer | June 26, 2008 12:34 am

Angela writes:

I got this tattoo about a year ago after finishing what turned out to be the magnum opus of my career (so far). Sadly, I am not a scientist, unless one considers sociology and economics to be true sciences, and then only marginally. I’m a grant writer and nonprofit director, and I work to interrupt the patterns of violent human behavior in sub-Saharan Africa.

This is a tattoo of Salvador Dali’s “The Swallow’s Tail,” the last painting Senor Dali completed before his death. Salvador had a rough couple of years, and through his depression he stumbled upon Rene Thom’s catastrophe theory, which inspired him to paint again. This particular painting is a representation of the swallowtail catastrophe (V = x5 + ax3 + bx2 + cx). In four dimensional phenomena, there are seven possible equilibrium surfaces and therefore seven possible discontinuities, and Thom called these the “elemental catastrophes.” In bifurcation theory, these are used to predict and model sudden shifts in behavior that result from small changes in circumstances. For a non-scientist, this is about as close to a complete explanation of my job and life as I may ever find. Salvador planned to do a series of all the possible catastrophes, and started with this one.

Sadly, he died right after he finished it. I’m not typically prone to drawing far-fetched parallels or finding metaphors where none exist, but still, this fact reminds me that my work will never, ever be done.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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