Recently I was talking with an engineer-in-training about the leap from classroom theory to actual practice. It’s a gulf, and you jump hoping to make it; the blow is softened somewhat (but only somewhat) by moving some of the transition into simulation classes. There, the stakes are grades; in real life, it’s money and human lives.
Which brought me back to one of my favorite books, Ivor Kletz. What Went Wrong. On the subject of great titles, that one grabbed my attention when it appeared 5-10 years ago on the New Arrivals shelf at the library.
It’s a series of case studies of process plant disasters, on up to the Bhopal-Chernobyl level. I had just read the accident report from Chernobyl, which like many disasters was a man-made perfect storm, a confluence of hubris, flawed design, and just plain bad luck.
I’ve been thinking for some time about the kind of stories that mainstream American culture (and its publishing apparatus) honors. When the 35W bridge collapsed (more or less in my back yard), the news was full of pictures of firefighters and other first responders diving into the wreck. I thought: they cover this on the news, and our movies are full of crisis and rescue, but there are no thrilling dramas about prevention. Nearly every disaster of this sort is preceded by a quiet drumbeat of suppressed warnings; people risk their careers to warn of coming disaster, and like Cassandra of myth, are ignored. She came bearing prophecy; today she’d deploy an array of spreadsheets and would be about as well received. In America as other places, no good deed goes unpunished.
Acute versus chronic–that’s the question.