>> Wednesday, September 30, 2015
A pathological technology is a triumph of emotional infatuation over reason, logic, and the unpleasant facts of the real world. Such technologies usually center around objects or processes that are physically huge: the airship Hindenburg; an H-bomb blast; a particle accelerator that’s 54 miles in circumference; a starship that would hold thousands of people. All of these things came with grandiose ambitions driven by emotional, romantic, starry-eyed mindsets or utopian spells: Zeppelins were revered by the Germans because of their otherworldly, cosmic, and sublime dimensions; particle accelerators are intended to reveal the innermost secrets of nature, giving us access to knowledge so arcane as to border on the religious. And as for starships, well, what could be more romantic than traveling to the stars?A further characteristic of pathological technologies is that their proponents routinely underestimate their costs, risks, downsides, and dangers. The Hindenburg was an immense vessel, longer than the U.S. Capitol building, but it was filled with more than 7 million cubic feet of inflammable and explosive hydrogen gas, a fact hardly emphasized in its advertising brochures. Traveling to the stars may sound glamorous, until you realize that if the starship’s velocity were as great as that of the Voyager I spacecraft, which is now receding from us at 38,000 miles per hour, it would take 73,000 years to reach the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.- Ed Regis, "What Could Go Wrong? The insane 1950s plan to use H-bombs to make roads and redirect rivers." Slate, September 30th, 2015.
This is dumb. I don't know what to make of it. It's an excerpt adapted from a book, Monsters: The Hindenburg Disaster and the Birth of Pathological Technology, and it's possible something has been lost in the shrinkage. Except to find out, I'd have to read the whole book, and I'm concerned the rest of the book might be that dumb, and life is short and someday I will die and that day isn't as faraway as it was yesterday.
Perhaps this would have been a perfect book to read when I was in college, and had loads of spare time for books that might prove to be dumb, and death was very far away and not something you thought about because you were twenty-two and the parts of your brain that think about death are mostly preoccupied with thinking about sex, and people you could have sex with, and how you would have sex with the people you could have sex with if you could have sex with the people you could have sex with.
Mr. Regis says that the poor Hindenburg was an example of pathological technology because it was full of hydrogen. Of course, it wasn't supposed to be. It was supposed to be full of helium, but the United States was unwilling to sell any under the 1927 Helium Control Act. To say that the engineers who built the Hindenburg were underestimating the dangers isn't quite right or fair: they were quite aware of the dangers, and decided that the benefits offset the risks. This isn't necessarily an irrational--or "pathological"--decision: planes, trains and automobiles are loaded with explosive fuel and can fail in all sorts of catastrophic ways, but the modern world is built around them.
The Hindenburg made sixty-two successful flights and perished on the sixty-third. Out of ninety-seven people aboard, thirty-five died, plus a member of the ground crew. That's a fairly minor disaster, actually.
The deadliest accident in aviation history, the collision of two Boeing 747s on the runway at Los Rodeos Airport on Tenerife in 1977, resulted in 583 fatalities; that's nearly seventeen times as many people dead, and did you even know about the Tenerife Airport Disaster? (You might have. I didn't. I had to look it up.) Let's be honest and callous: the Hindenburg "disaster" looms large in the public imagination while the Los Rodeos accident is the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question, or the question to a Jeopardy! answer. Nearly as many people on Hindenburg's final flight died as did in the worst bus crash in American history. (Twenty-seven fatalities in Prestonsburg, KY, in 1958; did you know that one?) Hell, the Hindenburg wasn't even the worst airship disaster ever: seventy-three people went down with the U.S.S. Akron in 1933, 96% of the passengers and crew and more than twice as many lives lost.
But Hindenburg went out spectacularly, in an iconic ball of flame, and just happened to do so in front of four film crews, a gaggle of print reporters and one infamously hyperventilating Chicago radio announcer. Trans-Atlantic flight was still a novel enough thing for each arrival and departure to still be an item. And the newsreel producers were anxious for stories with good visuals, radio producers abhorred the great vacuum of the aether, and big-city papers often had two or more daily/nightly editions with column-inches to spare.
That isn't all, though; the unfortunate fact is that Hindenburg died after a decade's worth of airship disasters, including the previously-mentioned Akron crash. Heavier-than-air flight was, meanwhile, pun inescapable, taking off. So that was that.
But it needn't have happened. Probably. There's still that notion that Hindenburg may have used rocket fuel for doping, but set that aside. She wasn't supposed to have hydrogen in her belly at all, and the engineers made a good-faith effort to avoid that.
One reason this interests me is because airships are interesting, and that's probably why Mr. Regis is writing his whatever-you-call-that with the unfortunate hook about "pathological technology"; but another thing is that helium is kind of interesting, and there's this intersection of science, tech and politics in the story. Helium is a noble gas and the second-lightest element in the universe after hydrogen, and that two-fer--nobility and lightness--makes it a bit marvelous there's any in the Earth at all. Hydrogen is the lightest element and shouldn't be around here either, except it's an atomic slut and attaches itself to nearly everything. But all the helium flies off into space, except for what has gotten trapped inside of the Earth's crust during radioactive decay--when radioactive elements undergo alpha decay, they spit out a helium nucleus (a.k.a. an alpha particle) and when this happens deep in the ground the poor little thing can't take to the sky like it really wants to. This is how the United States ended up with a monopoly on helium in the early days of 20th Century: underground helium leaked out when we were drilling for oil, since the underground helium produced by radioactive decay winds up swimming around in natural gas.
When the United States realized how much of it we had in our natural gas reserves, we decided we should keep it, and the 1927 Helium Control Act mandated the keeping of a national reserve and established limits on how much could be sold abroad. Actually, you know, we wanted it for our own airships, because that seemed like a viable technology at the time, not a "pathological" tech; the Germans used zeppelins as strategic bombers in WWI, and airships possessed cargo and maneuvering capabilities that airplanes and helicopters wouldn't be able to match until the next World War. So your science is that helium is incredibly rare, your tech is that it seemed incredibly useful, and your politics is that its potential at the time was as a strategically important natural resource that only one country could produce at the time.
(The punchline to all this being, of course, that nobody thinks helium is a rare substance that only exists trapped underground, built up from millions of years of radioactive decay, and everybody just seems to think it's something you can fill up birthday balloons with and inhale if you want to sound funny when you talk.)
The rest of the quoted passage above is similarly dumb. I didn't mean to go on and on about helium and Hindenburg, and how it wasn't really that bad, it only looked bad, and history and stuff. I don't get the rest of it. For instance, I have no idea what the deal is with picking on the Superconducting Super Collider, which was an expensive boondoggle to be sure but had no risks worth mentioning unless we're talking, I don't know, about construction site accidents like a crane falls on somebody or a tunnel collapses.
And what's the deal with starships, which we don't have and are nowhere near having, and nobody is seriously trying to build right now? It's a nice dream, and I adore Star Trek, but the observation that Voyager I would take 73,000 years to get to Proxima is interesting, not novel. It's why SF fans debate over whether putting physics-defying FTL ships into a story is "cheating" (or not) and why there are proposals for "generation ships" that would carry the long-distant-descendants of an original crew into space, as well as talk about and research into human hibernation. I can't make out what's pathological about fantasizing about space travel, although that could be a symptom of the disease (a social disease I share with thousands, if not millions). "Proponents," anyway, are fantasists, whether they're explicit fantasists (i.e. science-fiction authors and futurists) or are scientists advocating for or conducting the research that might lay the foundations for a human project that's actually plausible--and affordable, with acceptable risks--in some far-distant future era. Either way, I have trouble thinking of scientific idealists as "pathological."
If you go through to the link to the full excerpt from Monsters, an interesting and funny thing happens. The piece is about Operation Plowshare, the American project to try and come up with peaceful uses for nuclear weapons. Plowshare ended up being a bad idea, because nuclear explosions end up having secondary effects that are, ironically, a bit less manageable than the primary results; that is, the pressure wave, thermal radiation and ionizing radiation are all gone very quickly, but the residual radiation--material that becomes radioactive from neutron activation--ends up a long-lingering, dangerous mess. The interesting and funny thing is that you wouldn't know this from the piece at Slate, which takes it for granted that you'll think blowing things up with nuclear weapons is Inherently Bad (And No Good Can Come Of It), and so in the context of other things that aren't necessarily bad ideas at all like airships, supercolliders, and starships, you find yourself feeling oddly sympathetic with that awful little Hungarian physicist that Dr. Strangelove was modeled after.
There's an old episode of The Simpsons where Homer gets a gun, which he then proceeds to do various insane things with, like opening jars and trying to use it as a television remote control (turning the TV off with a pistol works better than trying to turn it on, for some reason). Which I mention because it's hard to deny that Dr. Edward Teller was Homer Simpson, only with H-bombs, in that regard. Hence, Operation Plowshare. But the thing about this is, why is it a bad idea to dig a canal with an H-bomb, or blow out a tree stump, or turn off your television. Homer Simpson is a little more obviously stupid with his pistol because (1) we have a bit more familiarity with firearms after several centuries and (2) The Simpsons is an animated comedy program and it's safe to presume that any idea suggested, or course of action taken, by any of the characters is a possible seed for humorous shenanigans.
But it's not necessarily obvious that a nuclear weapon is a bad thing; that is, it's not unreasonable to wonder if you can do anything with a nuclear explosive that you can do with a chemical explosive, only bigger (or smaller, depending on how you look at it--maybe a nuclear device can give you the same bang as a stick of TNT but in a smaller, safer package). It ends up being unreasonable because of neutron activation, but since a fusion explosion generates fewer neutrons than nuclear fission, there's still some point in considering the idea. Eventually, you conclude it's a bad idea; though, unfortunately, it might take some experimentation to confirm that conclusion, and that's where Operation Plowshare ends up being a dangerous and threatening fiasco.
But conventional explosives are useful and dangerous, and it isn't fundamentally unreasonable to consider alternatives, is all. Nuclear explosives turn out to be a lousy alternative, but the piece at Slate doesn't really tell you why, it just assumes you'll share its assumption that nuclear bombs are bad--that is, that you'll share the author's prejudice and guffaw and nod about how stupid someone would have to be to imagine you might replace a few million tons of dynamite and gunpowder with a few pounds of plutonium.
I could put it this way: reading "What Could Go Wrong?", I ended up comparing Ed Regis and Edward Teller and deciding the weird little man who knifed poor Robert Oppenheimer in the back and spent the years of my childhood trying to get Ronald Reagan to militarize outer space was the relatively reasonable-sounding one. Can't really do justice to how weird that feels, personally. Dr. Strangelove is a little unfair to Teller to the extent that mashing-up the Jewish refugee from fascism, Teller, with any number of physicists ostensibly "de-Nazified" by Operation Paperclip after WWII (including the rocketeer Wernher von Braun) is really very unjust; on the other hand, the title character's excitability over dubious propositions seems an apt portrayal (one can easily imagine Edward Teller trying to figure out whether the A-bomb would ignite all the oxygen in Earth's atmosphere--this was a moment of real concern during the Manhattan Project, and Teller's the one who satisfied everyone it wouldn't happen--with the same feverish intensity the Peter Sellers character brings to computing how many females will need to be relocated to the tunnels at the end of Dr. Strangelove, and even imagine Teller being slightly disappointed by the calculation that the Earth won't burn). Teller was really a bit awful, especially when the dour little doombringer is set next to Manhattan Project alumni like the doubting, tragic Oppenheimer or the bongos-pounding, practical-joking jester Richard Feynman.
I get that if you're going to write yet another book about the Hindenburg, you need some kind of a hook, and "pathological technology" is nicely euphonious even if the meaning is dubious ("pathological, technological" even sounds like something a white rock star in the 1980s--I'm hearing the late Michael Hutchence here, in "Need You Tonight"/"Mediate" mode--would say during an ill-considered attempt to "do that rapping thing I read about in Rolling Stone"; or maybe Sting, yeah, I can kind of hear Sting doing something with that, or a snarling Roger Waters; anyway). (Also, I just noticed some nice rhyme in "nicely euphonious even if the meaning is dubious," albeit in more of a Tim Rice vein, possibly; a backing choir singing it on a chessboard or while Jesus is being crucified, I guess. Accidental, though, didn't mean to do it. The rhyme, I mean. I've heard the crucifixion was deliberate, but it was well before my time.) I lost control of this paragraph somehow. I ought to start over.
I get that if you're going to write yet another book about the Hindenburg, you need some kind of a hook, and "pathological technology" is nicely euphonious even if the meaning is dubious. But I suppose I'm of that old school that thinks technology isn't anything except what it's used for. Even if you don't like the primary or intended purpose of a technology, it doesn't mean there's no legitimate use for it; as much as I dislike guns, I admit they're useful for putting venison in a stew, and I do like a good venison stew. It's probably good policy to limit the numbers of nuclear weapons in the world, but I can think of peaceful uses that might be at least discussed and perhaps merit keeping a few lying around somewhere--Project Orion is an interesting idea, at least, aside from the legal objections to it, and we might need to do something about a space rock o'death sometime, for instance. I can't really bring myself to say that airships are an inherently bad idea, and not just because of the romance of airship travel between the wars: it does seem to me that a lighter-than-air transport could be useful and efficient in some contexts where a stable aerial platform might be called for or where air travel is desired but the speed (and fuel consumption) of a jet plane isn't required. I'm willing, anyway, to think about it, and maybe these technologies are obsolete as astrolabes, but I wouldn't simply take the idea for granted.
The whole thing just seems pretty dumb to me. Is there a point in reading the book to make sure, or should I just do what I'm faulting Regis for and make some grand assumptions?