As a “served engineer” on a nuclear powered submarine, I learned a long time ago that things go wrong, even with the very best technology. The recognition of inevitable “problems” should not deter technical development and should not make people afraid to develop new products and services, but it should add a healthy dose of humility backed up by continuous efforts to prepare for the worst.
My experiences have taught me to be uncomfortable with any proclamation of inevitable progress. I have worked on IT projects, been a full participant in the digital revolution, operated a custom plastics manufacturing company, and watched the nuclear industry work to regain respectability after some serious missteps in its early development history. Progress is hard work and there are often failures that reset the development cycle just as it seems ready to take off.
Too many technology observers and pundits point to Moore’s Law as some kind of a general rule for technical developments. Moore’s Law is a very particular pronouncement – in 1965, Gordon Moore recognized that there was a recognizable path forward that would allow manufacturers to double the number of transistors that could be inexpensively placed on a chip every year for the next ten years and he recognized that he could apply that law to the 15-20 years of chip development that had already happened. He modified his prediction in 1975 to increase the doubling time to two years instead of one. He predicted that the implementation of that path would allow an increasing quantity of processing power, assuming that it would be possible to keep all of the transistors firing at the same rate as before.
Moore’s Law does not apply to software development, to steel making, to underwater sensors, to remote manipulators, to wind energy collection systems, or to the rate of IP data transmission using satellite networks. It is not even infinitely applicable to semiconductor based processors – there are physical limits to the size of transistors and connecting wires that will eventually provide an asymptote that levels out the growth of processing power.
I have never had much “faith” in technology. I like technology. I use lots of technology; my children have occasionally called me “Inspector Gadget” because of all of the tools (my wife and children sometimes call them “toys”) I have accumulated over the years. However, I understand the limits of the technology that I use. I read the manuals, heed the warnings, plan for failure, and worry about the potential consequences of inappropriately using technical devices. I know that no technology can overcome physical barriers; nothing I or anyone else can do will provide power from the wind when it is not blowing and nothing that I or anyone else can invent will enable chemical combustion to provide reliable heat energy without both a source of oxygen and a place to dump the waste products. Nothing that I or anyone else can invent will enable oil extraction from a dry well.
I also know that not everything that breaks can be fixed, even if there is an unlimited amount of time and money. Some breaks and fissures can never be welded shut or forced to heal.
This is where I believe that humble engineers and technicians who are not driven by sales numbers have a huge role to play. Their (our) natural pessimism can help to reduce the consequences of always listening to the optimists, the people who say “damn the torpedoes”, “failure is not an option”, or “whatever it takes”. Failure is always possible. Before stretching limits it is important to recognize the consequences of the failure to determine if they are acceptable. If the reasonably predictable “worst possible event” results in consequences that cannot be accepted, the prudent course of action is to avoid the action in the first place.
I place deepwater drilling for oil and gas into that category. It is pretty obvious that the possible consequences are unacceptable and that technological development has not yet found a way to mitigate those consequences. I am not sure what the limits of “deepwater” should be, but it is apparent that 5,000 feet is beyond the limit. I do not place operating nuclear energy production facilities in that category. However, there are very definitely some kinds of nuclear plants – like very large graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactors operated by people who override safety systems and ignore warning indications – that have proven that they can cause consequences that are not acceptable.
The real value comes in determining what the reasonably predictable consequences might be and what failure modes are reasonable to assume. For people who have no firm foundation in real world mechanics, chemistry and physics, it is possible to spin all kinds of scary scenarios that depend on a series of impossible events. (Note: Just because I believe that there is always something that can go wrong, I do not believe that all things are possible.)
My prescription for progress is not “faith” in engineers or technologists. It is for people to approach challenges with knowledge, a questioning attitude, humility and a willingness to expend the resources necessary to operate safely. A thirst for maximizing short term profits or an attitude of blind optimism are both incompatible with performing difficult tasks in potentially dangerous environments.