We don’t yet have evidence regarding the Costa Concordia’s hull and whether the construction may have had weaknesses revealed only under unusual stress, as at Beauvais and on the Titanic. But it’s very possible that construction of the hull did not assume that rocks could inflict a gash 160 feet long. We’ll know more when the designers and builders testify.
Finally, the Costa Concordia’s scale, like the Titanic’s, created unforeseen problems. Now as then, the ship’s evacuation routes confused many passengers. The Costa Concordia’s designers may have thought that by using advanced evacuation dynamics software to plan the interior, they could assure an orderly exit even from the most remote quarters. But Dracos Vassalos, a professor of maritime safety at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, recently noted in USA Today that “the internal architecture of cruise ships is so complex that even with the same effects being accounted for in . . . experiments, computer simulations or, indeed, in real-life accidents, we could potentially see a different outcome every time we simulate the accident.”
Engineers should, of course, continue to develop measures to prevent disasters. Collision-resistant construction, however imperfect, has helped save thousands of lives. On the Titanic, it bought hours of precious time; if evacuation had been ordered earlier and the nearby Californian had responded to distress calls promptly, the death toll might have been much lower. And the great majority of Costa Concordia passengers were rescued without serious injury.
Engineers should remain aware, though, that new designs can bring about new disasters—or, as McNeill concluded, “Both intelligence and catastrophe appear to move in a world of unlimited permutation and combination, provoking an open-ended sequence of challenge and response.” Debates about the Titanic’s end continue, and hearings and legal proceedings regarding the Costa Concordia will probably also take years. But wherever the fault lies, we have already been reminded that there is no substitute for vigilance, imagination and enlightened paranoia. In the words of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, we need to run as fast as we can to stay where we are.
Edward Tenner is the author, most recently, of the book Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.