August 05, 2007

Missing Richard Feynman

Q There is this general concern after this disaster that the nation's infrastructure is crumbling. Do you think that's an overly-broad characterization, or do you think that this in general is a very serious problem nationwide?

SECRETARY PETERS: Well, we certainly have aging infrastructure here in the United States. Most of our infrastructure came about as long as 50 years ago, as the interstate highway system was being built. I do believe that America's highways and bridges are safe.

The peerless Richard Feynman, brilliant Cal Tech physicist and bon vivant, served on the Rogers Commission that figured out the Challenger disaster of 1986. Actually, with a little legwork from unlikely sources, Feynman found the reasons for the "O-ring" failure pretty much by himself. But in the course of his report, he took issue with many claims that NASA made about the safety of the shuttle program, and in his usual insightful and funny way, he dismissed the NASA notion of a robust "margin of error" in the faulty O-ring design by comparing it, tellingly, as similar to claiming that a bridge supported by a beam that is rotted halfway through has a "50% margin of error." William Rogers, who liked appearing important and reassuring more than actually finding out what happened, called Feynman a "real pain," maybe because Feynman insisted on noting that "[f}or a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." The peculiarity in language pointed out by Feynman resonates today as we consider Mary Peters, Secretary of Transportation, and her determination, in the classic Bushian way, to overcome the clear evidence of reality, and to give precedence always to public relations, by attempting to fool Mother Nature.

A better way to have concluded her remarks would have been to state: "I do believe that America's highways and bridges are unsafe." Coming from a Bush bureaucrat, this would have been shocking, to be sure, but it would have given precedence to reality. If it is true, as reports now have it, that 77,000 bridges in the United States are "structurally deficient," the last grade given to the W-135 Bridge in Minneapolis, then on what basis would someone whose job it is to oversee the state of American transportation infrastructure blithely conclude that the bridge's collapse was an anomaly? Rather, the logical conclusion to reach is that all the deferred maintenance on all the "structurally deficient" bridges, and the excess loads being carried by another 80,000 or so bridges that are graded "obsolete," is that crossing an American bridge at this point is a crapshoot. Again, that would have followed more logically from the Secretary's premise. She might have said in a way that gave precedence to reality over public relations, "I do believe that crossing an American bridge at this point is pretty much a crapshoot."

It's another subject entirely, but I'm continually amazed at the jarring, discordant nonsense that passes for public declaration from the Bushians. On an everyday basis they make statements which they know that we know make absolutely no sense whatsoever, and they make them anyway, and they are reported as if a sane person had just said something which made sense. And now there's no Richard Feynman around to remind us how nuts it all is.

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