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Black Swan Event - what is it?

Updated on January 27, 2014

Black Swan Event - a rare bird?

What do black swans and solar storms have in common? On the first thought the answer is simple - nothing, nothing at all. Or...?

A solar storm can be a black swan event. So can an earthquake. A market crash. A stunning technological invention. Anything, really, but whatever shape it takes, one thing is certain - it will have a major impact on people's lives.

Should we fear black swan events? Perhaps. But it certainly is a good idea to find out more about this rare bird.

Photo source

market crash public domain
market crash public domain

Black swan event - what on Earth is that?

Ironically, black swan events have nothing to do with black (or white, for that matter) swans. They don't usually include any kind of bird - unless Hitchcock's famous movie turns into reality one day.

Remember Japanese earthquake in March 2011? That was a black swan event.

World War I was another. So was World War II.

Here's some more examples: invention of the Internet, 9/11, Wall Street Crash in 1929 (or any other year).

To be a black swan, an event needs to satisfy the following criteria:

1. It is unexpected.

2. It has major impact.

3. It appears predictable in hindsight.

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Black swan events are:

1. Unexpected

2. Highly influential

3. Explainable only in hindsight

idea public domain
idea public domain

Where did 'black swan event' come from?

A black swan event can come from anywhere at all, but the term 'black swan event' was coined by an essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It was introduced in 2007 in a book titled... ok, you've guessed it - The Black Swan.

Taleb tends to be either worshipped or hated. Some claim he's a genius, others attack him viciously. He may have provoked some of those attacks - The Black Swan is written in rather combative language, which, I presume, must be quite offensive if you happen to be the object of his ridicule. Otherwise - it's a highly refreshing exception in a dull world of politcal correctness :).

If you're interested in economics or logic, The Black Swan might be the book for you - it deals mainly with consequences of black swan events to finance, markets and the likes. It is full of sophisticated logic exercises and to a non-technical mind it can be a touch tiring. On the good note, it is full of subtle and highly amusing sense of humour and well - nobody can explain the black swan theory better than its creator.

Photo source

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable - Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I got my copy from the library, but if you'd rather own yours, here's where you can get it.

'The Black Swan Event' explained by its inventor

the sun public domain by nasa
the sun public domain by nasa

Black swan events and solar storms

I came across the term 'black swan event' when researching an entirely different thing - solar storms and their impact on our Earth. That impact is already considerable, but could become devastating if a big enough solar flare headed in our direction. Solar storms of the past caused telegraph wired to melt or burst in flames. With today's technology, it could be much worse (just imagine all those fried power grids...).

Would a solar storm of Carrington Event's magnitude constitute a black swan event? It would surely massively impact our planet. We can't really predict the Sun's behaviour (apart from having some general idea about its activity cycles). After the storm some people would certainly claim that we should have known all along... So it appears that the answer to my question is 'yes'.

Whatever Mr. Taleb's theories may be, his term 'black swan event' has already made international career and is likely to get only more famous. It is extremely catchy, it concerns the big things that we all fear or at least are fascinated by and great many phenomenons can fit its definition.

I predict that 'the black swan event' is here to stay. At least in language :).

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Black swans CAN be beautiful :)

Black swans CAN be beautiful :)
Black swans CAN be beautiful :)

Should we fear black swan events?

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Just kidding :) But you can say 'hi' :)

Help turn this lens into a black swan event - make it viral!

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