While I’m not sure the article’s definition of “dynamical systems” holds water, (OK, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t) the rest of the this Op-Ed entitled “Searching for Clues to Calamity” is very interesting, and should be especially considered by people unfamiliar with, well, dynamical systems. By Scientific American executive editor Fred Guterl, and author of The Fate of Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It, the article points to a case where tipping-point theory clearly applied both as prediction and as prescription.
Mr. Scheffer solved this problem with a key insight: the ponds behaved according to a branch of mathematics called “dynamical systems,” which deals with sudden changes. Once you reach a tipping point, it’s very difficult to return things to how they used to be. It’s easy to roll a boulder off a cliff, for instance, but much harder to roll it back. Once the ponds turned turbid, it wasn’t enough to just replant and restock. You had get them back to their original, clear state.
Science is a graveyard of grand principles that fail in the end to explain the real world. So it is all the more surprising that Mr. Scheffer’s idea worked.
Scheffer is now on a team trying to identify comparable dynamics in the climate system. Among the more serious concerns mentioned is a failure of the Indian monsoon. This has been out of fashion since the late Reid Bryson of Wisconsin, who first warned about it, got on the wrong side of the global warming debate, sticking to his early prediction of cooling.