The human brain, for example, receives data from a wide range of sources. I see a chocolate bar on my desk, my memory tells me it tastes great, my nose tells me it smells good, my eyes tell me it's really chocolate, and eventually that "avalanche" of events causes me to take a bite.
Rundle, a specialist in complex systems, says he turned to earthquakes because they are an interesting "threshold system," and if he can figure out what makes them tick, the same method might be applicable to other fields.
But none of those fields is more complex, and more vexing, than trying to pin down just when and where the next earthquake will hit. The field of earthquake prediction, or forecasting, is littered with failures by people who thought they had figured it out.
There is a little yellow dot on Rundle's map in the Cholame Hills of Central California. The dot signifies that there is a fair potential for a large earthquake in that area during this decade, and it sits squarely on a rural community called Parkfield.
That's a famous name among seismologists. Earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater hit that segment of the notorious San Andreas Fault in 1857, 1881, 1901, 1922, 1934, and 1966. That suggested a certain earthquake periodicity in that area, and in the 1980s scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey confidently predicted that a major quake would hit there before 1993.
Tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment was rushed to the area by scientists who hoped to catch an earthquake in the act, thus measuring every event that precedes a major quake.
Now nine years past due and Parkfield still waits for the Big One.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.