Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 103:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 103.

Today, we uncover some secret disasters. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A recent book by space engineer James Oberg titled Uncovering Soviet Disasters deals with what first might seem a well-worn theme -- that technological disasters are hushed up in the Soviet Union. But by relentless documentation, he paints a startling picture that exceeds anything we might imagine.

And an important message comes through. It is that by hushing up failure, you create a technology that's ill-equipped to respond to failure. Consider, for example, his story of a young girl who left Karaganda on a plane to Moscow. She never got there. Her father, in desperation, flew to Moscow to look for her. His search led him to the airport police station, where, now a week later, he was, and I quote, "sternly instructed to keep the information confidential -- that she was dead, killed with all the other passengers on her flight."

The Russians are normally more efficient in the way they report airline deaths. The victim's family is paid an indemnity equal to about a month's salary, given an urn with what might be the victim's ashes in it, and made to understand that they're to keep their mouths shut about the accident. A Pravda editor being interviewed by a Western author told him:

The reader must know something new and good -- what's the point of writing about every [plane crash].
The result of all this is predictable. Russian pilots have been notorious for failing to stay on flight paths, plan fuel reserves, or even equip themselves with proper maps.

Oberg goes on heaping case upon case -- the Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak, Chernobyl, dead cosmonauts, the reactor-bearing satellite that crashed over Canada, and a hundred less-known disasters. The saddest and most telling of these are several that involve a loss of Russian life within reach of American rescue teams they didn't dare call upon.

Perhaps these things will change with glasnost. I hope so. The Russians -- along with many Americans -- scold the American media for making theater of so much horror. And we do that. But by doing it, we subject our machines to far more stringent scrutiny, and they're better machines for it.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Oberg, J. E., Uncovering Soviet Disasters : Exploring the Limits of Glasnost. New York: Random House, 1988.

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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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