Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Mathematics of Disaster

One of my co-workers who knows I'm always in search of bloggable things sent me this interesting link the other day: Drilling the Macondo Prospect. It contains a great deal of interesting information about the late, lamented Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, where and how oil drilling is done at great depths in the Gulf of Mexico, and how we can go about calculating the force and pressure of the oil that, until recently, was blasting out of the ruined well and into the Gulf.

I'm no math genius (as generations of sobbing teachers can attest), but the article lays out the calculations in a very understandable way and puts the figures into a way even someone like me can understand. For instance, the amount of pressure exerted by 5000 feet of water and 13,000 feet of rock that was forcing the oil out of the well was sufficient to lift six fully-loaded dump trucks straight up into the air...and it was pushing the oil out at about 260 mph.

That's a lot of force. And one has to wonder why nobody thought about how to control that much force if something had gone wrong.

Which brings me to an interesting article by Seth Borenstein: Technology's Disasters Share Long Trail of Hubris. Mr Borenstein writes,

It’s all so familiar. A technological disaster, then a presidential commission examining what went wrong. And ultimately a discovery that while technology marches on, concern for safety lags. Technology isn’t as foolproof as it seemed.

The word hubris comes to us from the Greek, and refers to extreme arrogance and the overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities, especially for people in positions of power. And it often leads to a bad and humiliating end.

We often do things because we can, and not necessarily because we should. We can split the atom and generate lots of energy. We can also build nuclear weapons...but whether we should do either one is another issue. Nuclear power is often advertised as safe, clean, and environmentally friendly ... but the search for a place to store radioactive waste that will be deadly to humans for tens of thousands of years indicates that there might have been an element of hubris involved in the decision to go forward. As an aside, you may recall that I wrote about the linguistic aspects of generating warnings meaningful over vast stretches of time in this post: Don't Dig Here!

Anyhow, hubris seems to keep popping up and inviting us to calculate ... after the fact ... the mathematics of disaster. How much oil has spilled into the Gulf? How much will the cleanup cost? How long will Gulf seafood be unsafe to eat? What will be the ultimate cost in blood and treasure of a war in Iraq that was probably not necessary in the first place? Will New Orleans ever recover from a belief that the levees are just fine, thank you?

Hubris. It's been around since the time of the ancient Greeks, and it's not going away soon. And it's good to remember that it often leads to the invocation of another Greek word - nemesis, the divine retribution against acts of hubris.

The faint laughter you hear in the background is nemesis waiting to celebrate the next round of hubris.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Mike said...

Wait, you don't understand. The spill isn't as bad as eveyone thought. It must be true. I heard it on the news.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

The real mathematics of disaster: if it can go wtong it will go wrong.

KathyA said...

Hubris is everywhere. The arrogant idea that there is no climate change and that nature will not retaliate for the sins committed against our environment is an excellent example.