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Femtorisks

December 2, 2014

How can society keep small actions from growing into huge problems?

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Small risks; big problems. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In simpler days, the biggest risks to human society tended to be actually big: like rampaging mammoths, floods and volcanoes. As societies have gotten more complex, they’ve become susceptible to what Princeton ecologist Simon Levin and his colleagues call femtorisks—tiny things with very little power that get amplified to the point where they can threaten millions of people. They could include a lone terrorist or small changes to tax codes or stock trading rules. To address them, Levin says we should learn from the body’s immune system.

SIMON LEVIN (Princeton University):

You have to have an adaptive systems which has the capability to change in response to the mutations and novel threats that you’re faced with.

HIRSHON:

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he and his colleagues discuss powerful new tools to help identify and deal with these risks before they spread. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.