The calming quality of researching catastrophe

I find reading about and studying catastrophic accidents to the extremely calming.

First, I love the precision of the investigations into them and the determination to get as confident as possible an understanding of what failed. In the case of well-functioning regulatory systems, like the global commercial aviation industry, those findings are immediately applied to other vehicles that could be at risk of the same faults. In malfunctioning regulatory systems, as seen in the Space Shuttle program with the losses of Challenger and Columbia, the convenient but sloppy behaviour that led to unaddressed past faults persists (justifying itself misleadingly in the minds of managers because it doesn’t fail catastrophically on every mission – the “normalization of deviance” Mullane discusses) and leads to an eroded safety culture that costs lives. The meticulousness, cautiousness, and attention to detail of accident investigation reports and those who express their conclusions in the same guarded “here are the facts” style are why I love one lecture about the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Second, every specific catastrophe in the past can be emotionally distanced by anyone who is alive right now. Those of us with normally functioning cognitive capacities can mentally distinguish between events which have already happened, those that are happening now, and those that may happen in the future. By virtue of having a “past” tag mentally applied, reading about nightmares like WWI or the eastern front in WWII can be cathartic in a way that would have been inapplicable to the people actually living through it. This provides an unshakeable safety about anything you can learn about a discrete incident in the past. The incident has a bearing on what things are prudent to do today and on how to do them, which is part of what makes them interesting and worthwhile to research, but all the immediate suffering and tragedy of it is now over, though the consequences of that suffering doubtless endure among those who experienced catastrophic events in the past, and then all those whose lives were influenced by exposure to those people.

Researching my Space Shuttle screenplay, about the STS-27 and STS-107 missions and generally about the legacy of the shuttle program, can be a good way to relax in times of stress, though it almost by definition serves no productive purpose. It’s at least a meditative enterprise, and a reminder about the seriousness of consequences. It has occurred to me that there’s a similarity between the path of a blast of subatomic particles generated inside a particle accelerator, a Space Shuttle disaster, and a human life. In each one, a collection of items (atoms) move through the universe, following the laws of physics.

You can imagine each like a multidimensional plume of particles over time — perhaps staying closely grouped together, perhaps exchanging matter with the space around them, perhaps widely dispersed — with each unit of matter having a location and a particle type. Any of these events can be imagined as a an animation of frames, each depicting particle positions an hour or a minute of a nanosecond before. Each is fundamentally a one-way walk: we might seem like we get the chance to make choices all the time, but we can never really reverse a past choice now. We can make a new choice now to try to counteract the old one, but that’s not the same as having made the other choice in the first place. The past is irrevocable: a trail behind us, as well as the basis for our literal physical beings. In the case of catastrophes that happen on a fairly short timescale, like days or weeks, there is an especial emotional distance that I find accompanies them. Concerned as I might be for the fates of people aboard a burning oil platform in 1988 or the crew of a WWII submarine, I know that I can’t possibly alter their fates in any way, unless maybe there are some veterans still around to help out.

Anyhow, just some thoughts with no specific credential-chasing or financial motivations. Just checking in with my fellow sentient beings!

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

4 thoughts on “The calming quality of researching catastrophe”

  1. As an amateur pilot, I can’t help associating the words catastrophic failure with an accident report. The fact is, confronting a pandemic has surprising parallels with the careful coordination and organization that has saved large numbers of lives in air travel. Aviation is safe in large part because it learns from its disasters. Investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board go immediately to accident sites to begin assessing evidence. After months or even years of research, their detailed reports try to lay out the “accident chain” and explain what went wrong. In deciding whether to fly if I’m tired or if the weather is marginal, I rely on a tie-breaking question: How would this look in an NTSB report?

    Controlling the risks of flight may not be as complex as fighting a pandemic, but it’s in the ballpark. Aviation is fundamentally a very dangerous activity. People are moving at high altitudes, at high speed, and in high volume, with a guarantee of mass casualties if things go wrong. Managing the aviation system involves hardware—airframes, engines, flight control systems—and “software,” in the form of training, routing, and coordinated protocols. It requires recognition of hazards that are certain—bad weather, inevitable mechanical breakdowns—and those that cannot be specifically foreseen, from terrorist episodes to obscure but consequential computer bugs. It involves businesses and also governments; it is nation-specific and also worldwide; it demands second-by-second attention and also awareness of trends that will take years to develop.

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