There is a back story to the oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. It is the revelation of the extraordinary failure and triumph of engineering. In a world of computers, materials sciences and nanotechnology, big engineering remains awesome but often overlooked.
Everything to do with the Gulf disaster is part of the big engineering story. Hugely sophisticated drilling platforms, drills and drill bits make it possible to drill at a mile under the sea, and to go on another 3 miles into the earth beneath the ocean floor. That is awesome. The fact that at depth these drills can then drive horizontal is awesome-plus.
The blowout preventer–the fail-safe device–is amazing. It stands five stories high and is as sophisticated as a space rocket. It is a stunning piece of engineering design, which the world only knows about because it failed to operate on April 20 when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded.
No one knows for sure why the blowout preventer failed. Feeble human hands may have been a factor; the best engineering is no better than its operators.
When it came to the Deepwater Horizon, the makings of failure were in place; not on the sea bed, but on the deck of the drilling rig. Fatigue, greed, hubris and divided responsibility all drove toward disaster. As in aviation, great industrial disasters are usually not isolated phenomena but the result of a sequence of failures and misjudgments.
The Gulf tragedy will be compounded if we turn away from big projects and big engineering because we fear failure.
In the 19th century, big engineering thrived. The British built the Indian railways. Cecil John Rhodes dreamed of building a railway from Cape Town to Cairo. The idea of a tunnel under the English Channel was considered (an abortive start was made in 1911), while the Suez and Panama canals were being dug.
Like the Romans in their day, the British were committed to big engineering in their colonies and possessions. Big engineering carried the enterprise forward, opened markets and, in the case of canals and railroads, carried troops to the battle.
The American railroads united the country and laid the groundwork for the greatest commercial expansion the world had yet seen.
Electricity brought forth more engineering creativity with power plants, dams, transmission lines, and finally nuclear power plants.
But big engineering took a drubbing in the 1960s: It was suddenly the problem, not the solution. We continued to fly in Boeing 747s, but we did not celebrate their engineering. We used more electricity and held our noses as we did so.
The miracles of engineering-based comfort and prosperity were to be eschewed. We indulged but fretted, like a smoker who knows he should not do it.
No longer did politicians urge the young into the exciting world of big engineering, whether it was civil, electrical or mechanical. Instead, they talked blandly about “math” and “science,” as though these were disciplines that could operate without engineering support.
“Technology” was in and engineering–big engineering, which built big things like dams, nuclear power plants, oil refineries and ships–was out, relegated to the category of “last resort.”
Incredibly, the tunnel between England and France was opened and the French pioneered high-speed trains. But America’s engineering schools played with their curricula, adding socially relevant courses and hybrids that include, and sometimes emphasize, ideas that are far from the world of leverage, logarithm and tensile strength. Engineering management and social impacts of engineering are among the new courses that have tainted the brawny world of big engineering.
Political correctness met engineering, and it has not been a happy marriage.
One would hope that the events in the Gulf would excite a new generation of engineering students to the romance of engineering, the thrill of creation and the duty of problem-solving. For engineering romantics like myself, a giant crane is nearly as wondrous as a cathedral.
There is unbelievable horror in what we have wrought in the Gulf. But also is wonder that we can build machines so remarkable that they can lift the lid off the underworld.