Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Limits of Foresight

I've been asked, via a friend I made through this blog, to make predictions about 50 years from now. It's a daunting task, for as some great speaker noted, "Prediction is hard, especially about the future".

It is especially daunting given how badly past attempts have gone. World's fairs, pronouncements from futurists, science fiction writers -- in general have a high ratio of chaff to wheat. A few have been good at their game, but these are the exceptions.

It doesn't help to think of where predictions truly mean life-or-death, as failing to foresee something will lead to horrible consequences. Saturday marked the 40th anniversary of one such tragedy, one which dominated the headlines for days & halted the U.S.'s second giant national technology project for nearly a year and a half.

The U.S.'s first great national technology project, defined here as requiring enormous resources with efforts spread across the country, leaped to the public eye with the obliteration of an entire city. The third one was far more benign in intent & one which I attempted to play a part in (perhaps with little result), and was also far more international in character. Its finish line was far less clear, as finishing the genome became a question of successive approximations.

But that second project, when it got started again most of the world watched. Sadly, I may well have slept through it -- but I slept a lot in those days. In July 1969, two men walked on the moon, stunning the world. And because of a lack of foresight by others, Gus Grissom was not one of them.

Grissom was in the first batch of American astronauts & had (it is believed) been promised the first moon attempt. But on 27 January 1967, Grissom and his two colleagues, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, were roasted alive. They could not be saved, because under fire conditions the laws of physics held their hatch shut: it opened inwards, with the full pressure of the heated cabin pushing the other way. The 100% oxygen atmosphere, combined with sloppy assembly, was a disaster waiting to happen.

After the accident, a full review of the capsule design resulted in many changes -- many changes to try to avoid what had not been previously forseen and perhaps other accidents. But not all could be forseen -- and the Apollo program would have two close calls with Apollo 13 and Apollo-Soyuz -- again, designs failing to anticipate all that could happen.

Nineteen years and a day after Apollo 1, a new lack of foresight (and perhaps some rotten engineering graphics; here is one that might have saved the Challenger) would lead to seven more astronaut deaths. I was in high school that day, lamenting that the cold weather hadn't led to canceled school so I could watch the launch. Instead, in chemistry class we watched replay after replay of the accident (along with the misinformed, premature commentary the news media feels obligated to provide during such events).

Just barely over 17 years later, I was driving in to Boston to go to the Children's Museum with my family. A short radio broadcast on I-93 (I remember the spot clearly) had me whispering 'Not again!' -- lost contact with a spacecraft is not normal! Again, a failure of engineering foresight -- arguably stretching back to the original design, had doomed seven humans.

In every case, many very smart minds tackled a problem -- and failed to see all the consequences that could result from their decisions. Other failures of foresight have enabled success by the attackers at Pearl Harbor and on 9/11. Only after the event can we see so clearly what we didn't before -- as noted by a recently deceased intelligence analyst who examined such things. Oppenheimer saw the raw power of the atomic bomb ("Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds") , but not the long-term poisoning of the survivors.

As far as I know, no one has died as a direct result of the genome project. Other than being electrocuted by a sequencing machine, it is hard to imagine how that could happen. But the long term effects of the genome project seem as difficult to predict as any other ripples from a technological stone. Surely much good will come of it, but alas undoubtedly there will be mischief as well. Let us hope that such mischief comes closer to genetic paparazzi than to Huxley's nightmare visions of Brave New World.

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