Black Swans

Black Swan
Image by davesag via Flickr

The late 1st Century Roman Poet Juvenal is generally credited with the first written reference to the Black Swan and like so much of his work it was satirical.  He characterised something as being  “a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan” by which he pretty much meant “as scarce as hens teeth”. As far as we are concerned hens do not have teeth and as far as the rest of the world was concerned there was no such thing as a Black Swan. Not the only saying for which Juvenal is remembered “who guards the guardians” is another one of his. The phrase Black Swan passed into European use and was used to describe things that did not exist.

European Scientists also went about establishing the credentials of a swan and were able to determine that all swans had to be white.

When the Dutch Sea Captain Willem de Vlamingh sailed up a river he would name the Swan River on the 10th of January 1697 they encountered the impossible.

Because we know that there are Black Swans we may miss the importance of this. When that which you know to be true is radically overturned it is confronting and disturbing, possibly also an opportunity to grow, but it can be quite unsettling.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has outlined a theory of how we deal with these events called ‘Black Swan Theory”. Some Black Swan events are positive and some are negative, but they all take us by surprise and called us to radically rethink our reality, and probably involve some rationalization as to why we did not see it coming.

The destruction to the World Trade Centre was effectively a Black Swan Event. Nobody was expecting it, nobody saw in coming, and it caused us all to rethink our world.

I have just ordered the book, The Black Swan and I am looking forward to it.

Of course by their very definition it is impossible to predict Black Swan events, yet we know that must happen if we are to extend and expand our encounter with the world.


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