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The Zoology of Surprise

Image: Watercolor and ink, by Black Elephant Blog author

From boiling frogs to butterflies, hippos to hummingbirds–and black swans, and now “black elephants”— there is a zoological taxonomy evolving to describe how and why we are surprised. We are surprised when a seemingly random event occurs. The rapid proliferation of a new technology, not even imaginable just a few years ago, surprises us. We can be surprised by the generosity of strangers. Or, we can be surprised by an extreme, and extremely dangerous, event or development.

We are surprised, simply, because we were not expecting x, y, or z to occur. How can so obvious, or even banal, a statement be so fascinating and still so poorly understood? Some surprises we like and look forward to, while others we dread or haven’t imagined.

The reasons for surprise are still being investigated as, for example, in the new book by mathematician, David Hand: The Improbability Principle.  Hand and others explain to us how surprises are inevitable: there are laws of improbability! (The Improbability Principle will be addressed in a future blog post.)

As I have considered the issues of surprise, risk, uncertainty, and probability, colorful metaphors recur. Not everyone appreciates metaphors but I do. The “black swan” made famous by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s groundbreaking book of the same name is a case in point. Sometimes, even if not exactly accurate (as we shall see, black swans are not so rare, depending on where you live), the metaphor helps to sharpen our thinking.

The imagery of surprise taken from the natural world seems evocative of so many things, including how inevitably surprised we are the further removed we become from nature itself. In the worlds of science and mathematics, we have discovered that we actually still have so very much to learn about the interactions and behaviors of natural systems. A recent review of two new books made a distinction between the “Newtonian Moment” and the relatively recently recognized “Quantum Moment,” for instance.

Answers may well prove elusive in this quest but the journey I envision on this blog is going to be surprising in many ways. It will convene ideas from disparate sources and thinkers on the origins of surprise and, relatedly, creativity and innovation. So, I will begin with creating a glossary of the “Zoology of Surprise.”

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