Wrenches in the high-tech toolbox

The Golem at Large

November 12, 1999

Do you recall the Gulf war? Remember those stirring television shots of Patriot missiles climbing into the night sky over Tel Aviv to intercept the incoming Scuds? Well, the truth seems to be a little different from what you saw. Then there was the Challenger explosion in January 1986, when a space shuttle exploded, killing seven astronauts. Did you know that, on the night before launch, engineers responsible for the O-ring seals that in due course failed, causing the explosion, were telling Nasa not to go ahead?

The inside stories behind these technological gaffes are in this book, along with material on a range of other examples of science and technology affecting society. The authors have trawled widely, with Aids, Chernobyl and its fallout on the Cumbrian hills, economic modelling, the origins of oil, the safety of nuclear fuel flasks, as well as Challenger and Patriot, all coming under scrutiny. Harry Collins is the director of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise and Science at Cardiff University, and his co-author Trevor Pinch is a professor at Cornell University. This book is a sequel to their successful The Golem: What You Should Know about Science . "What's a golem?" I hear you ask.

It is a creature from Jewish mythology, a powerful creature that, while not evil, flails about clumsily. The first book focused on case studies concerning relativity, cold fusion and other such topics to argue that science is neither all good nor all bad.

This second volume presents case studies to demonstrate that the uncertainties of science follow through into imperfect technology.

The Patriot missile saga is fascinating. At an early stage of the Gulf war "Storming" Norman Schwarzkopf declared that of 33 Scuds engaged all had been destroyed. After a month of hostilities, President Bush proclaimed that 41 out of 42 missiles had been "intercepted". That word was carefully chosen. In a 1992 congressional hearing a brigadier general of the US army was asked about that claim from the commander-in-chief. He revealed that, in military speak, "intercepted" simply meant that when a Scud came in, a Patriot missile was sent up and their paths crossed in the sky - it did not mean the Scud was destroyed.

The authors also make good use of the records of the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger explosion. The gaps between the segments of the rocket boosters on this space shuttle were sealed with rubber O-rings. Soon after launch a seal failed, and the exhaust gases released acted as a blow-torch to burn through a strut and destroy the mission. At midnight, before the blast-off on January 28 1986, Nasa held a teleconference with the company, Morton Thiokol, that had built the boosters. It turned out that Roger Boisjoly, an engineer with Thiokol, steadfastly opposed a launch in the freezing January conditions expected. However, he was overruled by his management, and Nasa was given the go-ahead. The rest is history. What would you have answered when the Nasa manager asked: "My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April?" Every engineering student should have the opportunity to consider the interchange of views in that midnight call as a case study of the pressures in real-life engineering management. The nuggets in this one chapter make the book worthwhile reading for any engineering academic or student. The series of equally good chapters makes this slim volume a rich seam of material.

The authors argue that it is up to society at large to get involved in the debates underlying the scientific and technological issues of the day. It is dangerous to leave the field to the experts. Literally, in the case of Cumbrian sheep farmers. I found this study of particular interest, since my forebears hailed from near Windscale (oops! I mean Sellafield). After heavy rain deposited Chernobyl fallout on Lake District hill farms in the spring of 1986, government scientists and politicians hastened to assure the world at large that all was well. For the farmers on the ground things were not so simple. They watched their sheep being monitored for

radioactivity - by holding a counter to their backsides - and could see the uncertainty of the whole investigation. They observed the experts pontificating on where the "hot-spots" were, while ignoring advice from the farmers on where water accumulated and radioactivity would be greatest.

Ultimately, the farmers were profoundly sceptical of the scientists, not even believing that the radioactivity all emanated from Russia. The locals still recalled the 1957 disaster at Windscale (subsequently renamed in the hope that we would all forget the fire), not far from their fells. One shepherd is quoted: "That didn't come from Russia, lad! Not with that lot (Sellafield) on your doorstep." He was not altogether wrong. When the incidence of caesium 137, from the Sellafield fire, was compared with that of the caesium 134 from Chernobyl, it turned out that

only about half the observed radioactive caesium was Russian, while the rest lingered on from 1957 and from weapons testing. Eventually, after all the early assurances were proved unjustified, chastened scientific experts had to admit things were not quite as they had so confidently announced to the world. The outcome was a community whose faith in science was severely shaken. The local representative of the National Farmers Union summed it up: "We may be on the eve of a new age of enlightenment. When a scientist says he doesn't know, perhaps there's hope for the future!" That is the underlying message of this riveting book.

Robert Gaitskell is a practising Queen's Counsel and a vice-president, Institution of Electrical Engineers.

The Golem at Large: What You Should Know about Technology

Author - Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch
ISBN - 0 5215 5141 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £12.95
Pages - 163

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