The hundredth anniversary of the wreck of the Titanic on April 15 provides a welcome moment to celebrate the many great strides made by engineers. In 2012, people move around the world more quickly and more safely than ever before. But the fate of the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that ran aground off the coast of western Italy in January, reminds us that no matter how much progress we make, disasters still happen. It also presents a question: After a century of advances in naval engineering, why are we still unable to prevent deadly wrecks?
My graduate-school teacher, William H. McNeill, explored a similar question in a 1989 essay, “Control and Catastrophe in Human Affairs.” McNeill had economic wrecks, not shipwrecks, in mind. At the time he was writing, regulators were confronting the savings and loan crisis, which itself was just the latest in a long series of financial and monetary debacles dating back to at least the Panic of 1873. Why were regulators unable to better manage the system? After each panic or crash, they would step in with reforms, yet no matter how careful the design, at some point those reforms would fail, and catastrophe would return anew. McNeill proposed that the problem was not poorly designed reforms, but rather reforms that worked all too well. They achieved their intended purpose, but they did so by shifting risk to less-organized places. “It certainly seems as though every gain in precision in the coordination of human activity and every heightening of efficiency in production were matched by a new vulnerability to breakdown,” McNeill concluded. “If this is really the case, then the conservation of catastrophe may indeed be a law of nature like the conservation of energy.”
We can observe another variation of the conservation of catastrophe in the construction of medieval cathedrals. When builders discovered clever ways to construct larger and airier, more light-filled testaments to the glory of God, they incorporated them enthusiastically. Those new levels of achievement, though, also exposed the structures to previously unknown hazards. For instance, when the architects of the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Beauvais, France, set out to build the tallest church in history, they deployed the then cutting-edge technology of flying buttresses. The lightweight buttresses were a brilliant innovation, but the soaring design they enabled also revealed previously irrelevant structural flaws, still under scholarly investigation, that led to a partial collapse of the choir in a windstorm in 1284, a dozen years after construction was complete. (High winds also doomed another landmark, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington, six centuries later.)
Disaster may also reassert itself when engineers are so successful that they actually transform the environment. In attempting to control flooding on the Mississippi River, for instance, engineers built levees close to the riverbanks. Floodwaters that were once dispersed across a wide plain were now confined to a high, narrow channel. It worked well for the most part—but narrow waters run faster, so when the levees were breached or overtopped, as was inevitable, the same volume now spread more quickly, causing greater damage. Similarly, forest managers’ increasing ability to suppress wildfires can lead to the buildup of brush—which turns out to be a far more powerful fuel for the fires that do eventually rage out of control.
We can see the same three trends at work in marine disasters: First, genuinely safer systems can sometimes cause the crew to miscalculate risk. Second, genuinely better engineering can expose previously unrealized weak points. And third, the size and complexity that make new ships so impressive may exacerbate trouble when disaster does strike.
The disaster of the Titanic led to reforms. Congress began requiring ships to monitor the airwaves at all times. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea in 1913 called for ships to carry enough lifeboats to hold every passenger, and for the creation of an International Ice Patrol, to monitor icebergs. Yet disaster just as surely reasserted itself. The addition of lifeboats made some vessels less stable; the excursion ship Eastland, already relatively top-heavy before the installation of additional post-Titanic lifeboats, capsized in Chicago Harbor in 1915, killing 844 passengers. The ship was overloaded, and the alarmed crowd rushed from side to side until it listed fatally.
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.
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