Tuesday, April 15, marks the 102nd anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. It was a terrible and avoidable loss of life—a tragic event, like many others that both preceded and followed, that should never be forgotten. As an engineer and scientist, I have learned how these disciplines can enrich our lives, or cut them short.
Humankind is, by all measure, unique it its ability to manipulate the environment in complex fashion. We design and build wondrous machines that have taken us to the moon and back, as well as the deepest depths of the oceans. We build bridges, tunnels, towering buildings that seem to defy gravity. We mine natural resources from miles below the Earth’s surface and manufacture chemicals that provide high yields of food; textiles that would have earned the praise of kings; plastics and ceramics for just about every purpose imaginable; and wonder drugs that have extended our lifespan. We have learned to manipulate materials at the atomic level to realize advanced semiconductors that are the foundation of modern communications and computers.
Yet despite all these accomplishments, science and engineering are conceptual disciplines that cannot overcome one of the most basic of human emotions—arrogance. This flaw in human psyche contributes to over confidence, a belief that we can manipulate the laws of science and engineering without failure, an egotistical disregard for the human element—error and misunderstanding.
To mark this anniversary, I’ve listed several examples of engineering bungling that led to tragic accidents.
RMS Titanic: Watertight compartments that were not water tight near the upper decks, so as the ship nosed down, water simply flowed from one flooded compartment, over the watertight bulkhead, and into the next compartment. Note, this was a completely avoidable design flaw. Although many experts attribute the sinking to poorly understood metallurgy that resulted in brittle hull plates, I would argue that the true avoidable error was bad design of the watertight bulkheads.
De Havilland Comet: The passenger jet age began in 1949 with the Comet. By 1954, several flights had mysteriously crashed, and the plane was grounded for years until the cause was determined—catastrophic metal fatigue originating at the square window corners. The metal fatigue was a result of repetitive cabin pressurization resulting in explosive destruction of the aircraft at high altitude (next time you fly, notice there are no square corners).
Apollo 1: During a launch-pad test of electronic equipment in the Apollo space capsule, a flash fire erupted killing all three astronauts within seconds. The cause of the fire remains unknown, but the speed and intensity of the blaze was due to the Apollo module being unnecessarily filled with pressurized pure oxygen. The astronauts, in their bulky suits and strapped into flight seats, had no chance of egress even if the hatch had been easier to open.
Ford Pinto: The design of the gas tank and filler spout was vulnerable to rupture in a low-speed rear-end collision. The problem was exacerbated by Ford’s calculated decision to pay victims compensation rather than the more expense recall and fix (less than $20 per automobile).
I could go on—the Deepwater Horizon and Piper Alpha oilrigs, Chernobyl and Fukushima, are some of the more recent and high-profile examples of human arrogance leading to flawed engineering. As I see it, the problem is that technologists have too much faith in technology. This is not a religion, there is no room for faith. Designs must be rooted in cold, hard calculations and science. When we forget that, disaster is only a moment away.