January 7, 2005

Bujold on the Essence of Engineering Evil

by PAT CUMMINGS American Digest Book Editor


I recently watched the National Geographic Channel's documentary about the Eschede train derailment on June 3, 1998.

More than 100 people died when Germany's high-speed Inter-City Express (ICE) train went off its rails and crashed at 125 mph into a bridge abutment. An episode in the "Seconds from Disaster" series, the

program revaled that during development a test of the wheels' motion on rails at high speed revealed the flutter that would generate the disaster. Instead of heeding the warning, the tests were rejected. The lethal flutter was dismissed as an artifact of the measuring process.

When I learn about disaster arising from poor engineering or quality testing, I flash on Lois McMaster Bujold's novel Falling Free. In Bujold's story Leo Graf is an engineer tasked with training workers who have been genetically modified to work in free-fall. The 'quaddies' (so-named because one of the mods replaces their legs and feet with a second fully-functional set of arms and hands) are virtual slaves of the corporation that created them to construct space ships in orbit.

One of the lessons Graf teaches these nascent engineers has resonated with me for decades: the absolute evil represented by deliberately falsifying engineering test results. In their class on x-ray crystallography and weld-testing, Graf addresses the quaddies:

"Look at this. What do you see?" He nodded at Tony again.

"A laser weld, sir."

"So it would appear. Your identification is quite understandable -- and quite wrong. I want you all to memorize this piece of work. Look well. Because it may easily be the most evil object you will ever encounter."

They looked wildly impressed, but totally bewildered. He commanded their absolute silence and utmost attention.

" That," he pointed for emphasis, his voice growing heavy with scorn, "is a falsified inspection record. Worse, it's one of a series. A certain subcontractor... found its profit margin endangered by a high volume of its work being rejected... The welds passed the computer certification all right -- because it was the same damn good weld, replicated over and over again..."

He gathered his breath. "This is the most important thing I will ever say to you. The human mind is the ultimate testing device... There is nothing, nothing, nothing more important to me in the men and women I train than their absolute personal integrity. Whether you function as welders or inspectors, the laws of physics are implacable lie detectors. You may fool men. You will never fool the metal."

One hundred and two people died in a train crash, and 104 were injured, because the designers of the ICE train tried to bypass this lesson. Whatever the other flaws of the novel (there are several), Falling Free and Leo Graf have this to teach us. You will never fool the metal.

Pat Cummings, constant reader, also reviews books at his site Paper Frigate, and at Blogcritics as well. He can be emailed here.]

Posted by Vanderleun at January 7, 2005 1:35 PM
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