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Enduring Lessons from the Titanic

Faith in technology should have a limit.


After 100 years, what is it about the Titanic that continues its hold on our culture?

There is the human element - the quaintness of the bygone Edwardian culture, our revulsion at the rigid class separation of those days, the terror that passengers, rich and poor, must have felt as the unforgiving elements destroyed the "unsinkable" ship, the tragedy of 1,500 lives lost in the dark deep.

There is also our fascination with the arrogance of smart people who convinced themselves they could build a ship that would defy anything nature could throw at it and always arrive safely in port. How could they have fooled themselves so thoroughly?

Easy for us to say, but our generation is not immune to the hubris that was an author of the Titanic's doom. Titanic went down as a result of a cascading series of failures, the sort of sequence that brought on the Deepwater Horizon mess of 2010 and the Fukushima disaster of 2011.

Cascading failures are well known aspects of Titanic lore. Speed was not a smart choice for a large ship that was inherently difficult to maneuver away from danger. Iceberg warnings were not heeded. The ship sideswiped the iceberg instead of banging into it head-on; the greater number of hull breaches that resulted allowed water to flood too many compartments for the ship to remain afloat. There were not enough lifeboats. Lifeboats were released with empty seats. Recent research suggests an odd weather phenomenon might have made it difficult for the crew of the nearby Californian to see and properly identify the Titanic's distress rockets.

Cascading failures resulted in the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the deaths of 11 rig workers, and the spill of some 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico two years ago. The failures were many: Corporate complacency about the demanding conditions of deepwater oil production. Overmatched regulators. Lax management. Poor communications. A faulty well cementing job. Failure to accurately interpret anomalous pressure readings. Explosive gas built up on the rig. It ignited, destroyed the rig, and the Macondo well spewed out of control.

Same sort of story at Fukushima. Utility managers failed to heed research that a tsunami big enough to overtop sea dikes and flood the plant was possible. The earthquake preceding the tsunami cut the plant off the grid power supply. Post-quake tsunamis  inundated emergency generators. The plant lacked sufficient power to run the pumps that kept the reactor core and the spent fuel pools from overheating. Hydrogen from damaged fuel built up and caused explosions in three reactor buildings. Radioactivity spread into the outside environment.

We live in a world of high technology that has delivered a standard of living our ancestors in ancient times would have considered magical. Technology with the power to deliver so much good has the power to turn on us savagely if we let our guard down. That is one of the Titanic's enduring lessons.

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