Predicting Earthquakes and Powerlifting

Written by Kevin Cann


I had stumbled upon Per Bak’s book “How Nature Works.”  Bak is a physicist that developed a theory of complexity known as self-organization criticality (SOC).  Basically, he theorizes that all complex events reach a critical state.


Once this critical state is reached there will be what is known as a phase transition.  There will be what is known as avalanches of all sizes. The term avalanche comes from Bak’s earlier experiments using sandpiles.


Bak and colleagues continues to add grains of sand, one at a time, to a pile of sand grains.  Once the pile reached a critical state, where it could reach greater heights, it would be considered to be in a critical state. This point in time is known as the “edge of chaos.”


Bak and colleagues would continue to add individual sand grains and witness these avalanches. Sometimes the avalanches would include just a few grains, other times it would reshape the whole pile in much larger avalanches.


What they noticed was that the avalanche sizes were very random and completely unpredictable, but they followed what is known as the power-law.  The most famous example of the power law is the Richter scale used for earthquakes.




The power-law states that large events are no different than smaller ones, they just happen at lower frequencies.  An earthquake of 5 on the Richter scale occurs more frequently than one at 6, which occurs more frequently than one at 7, and so on.


From this scale one might set the probability of a 7 rated earthquake in a particular area as occurring 1 time in every 35 years.  This does not mean that it actually happens every 35 years and we can predict this with regularity.  Currently we have no ways to predict any earthquakes.


This area could have 2 catastrophic events in back to back years, and these 2 events could be the only catastrophic events in a 100-year period.  Perhaps the 3rdis the following year.  The long-term statistics show that it does in fact occur 1 time in every 35 years, we just have no idea when it will happen.


We can’t predict the things in which we do not understand.  We do not understand what causes the fault lines to build up energy, leading to a shift in tectonic plates, and causing an earthquake.


Science attempts to reduce the studies to these fault lines.  Chances are everything is connected.  Landslides causing shifts in landscapes, volcanic activity, atmospheric changes, ocean temperatures, and so on are probably all variables in play to understanding earthquakes.  Each individual piece is extremely complex.


When there is an earthquake, we see a shift in the landscape that changes the flow of rivers.  This alters the species distribution in an area and also paves the way for the rise of new species.  Earthquakes are a way that the earth self-organizes into various states.  At times the earth is in stasis, frozen where it is, and at times it is in a critical state where there will be a phase transition.  Earthquakes are adding a grain of sand to earth’s sandpile.


Bak and colleagues later created a computer program to attempt to see if population growth and mass extinctions followed this same power law.  This program included 1,000 species that were represented by variables and assigned a random number.


There was a food chain to the immediate right and left of each species.  The researchers would run the program until the environment reached a state of stasis.  This just means it was frozen where it was at.  No further changes would occur.  Oftentimes this would happen without reaching a critical state.


Once the environment was frozen, the researchers would remove the least fit species and replace it with a new one.  The experiment would run again.  Eventually there would be a critical state and the researchers would see chaotic behavior as well as mass extinctions.


Biology is extremely complex.  No one really attempts to answer the question of “Where did life come from?”  This question is perhaps the most important question to answer, but also one without even a good starting point.


Training is just like the experiments on mass extinction.  The lifter starts somewhere.  Instead of species we have all the feedback loops that the brain analyzes such as energy, mood, core temperature, expectations, past experiences, beliefs, and so on.


The lifter runs that program and reaches a frozen state, perhaps hitting a small PR.  We change things up and run it again.  Every so often instead of reaching a frozen state we reach a state of criticality.  We keep training and all of a sudden, we hit a large PR.


I would theorize that these strength increases would follow a power-law.  Small PRs, or avalanches, are more frequent than larger ones.  There would be the same line as seen on the Richter scale.


According to the power-law the large PRs are no different than the smaller ones.  Just random occurrences that occur at different probabilities.  As coaches we attempt to find trends in these scenarios.


For example, high volume leads to a large PR so I must respond better to higher volumes.  As humans we love to trick ourselves into seeing trends in events we do not fully understand.  Humans do this all of the time.  An example is the stock market and also the weather.


We are good at forecasting probabilities with the weather because we have a solid understanding on how the particles work in the atmosphere.  Biology is far more complex than the weather.  Biology is more like earthquakes.  We just really have no idea.


With that said, the research on mass extinctions tells us quite a bit.  We start somewhere and just watch.  We measure objective outcomes and when the lifter seems to be in a frozen state, we change it up and repeat the process all over again.


We have zero predictive power in knowing how this will play out each time.  Large PRS are no different than small ones.  They are not special.  Thinking that they are can get the coach into a bit of trouble.


Just keep training and observing the lifter’s performance.  When it seems to stall, change something up.  This may work, it may not.  If it does it is not because you were right, and if it doesn’t it was not because you were wrong, it is just the way of the universe.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s