Monsters: The Hindenburg Disaster and the Birth of Pathological Technology
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Zeppelins were steerable balloons of highly flammable, explosive gas, but the sheer magic of seeing one of these behemoths afloat in the sky cast an irresistible spell over all those who saw them. In Monsters, Ed Regis explores the question of how a technology now so completely invalidated (and so fundamentally unsafe) ever managed to reach the high-risk level of development that it did. Through the story of the zeppelin’s development, Regis examines the perils of what he calls “pathological technologies”—inventions whose sizeable risks are routinely minimized as a result of their almost mystical allure.
Such foolishness is not limited to the industrial age: newer examples of pathological technologies include the US government’s planned use of hydrogen bombs for large-scale geoengineering projects; the phenomenally risky, expensive, and ultimately abandoned Superconducting Super Collider; and the exotic interstellar propulsion systems proposed for DARPA’s present-day 100 Year Starship project. In case after case, the romantic appeal of foolishly ambitious technologies has blinded us to their shortcomings, dangers, and costs.
Both a history of technological folly and a powerful cautionary tale for future technologies and other grandiose schemes, Monsters is essential reading for experts and citizens hoping to see new technologies through clear eyes.
Public Health Service. “Iodine Inhalation Study for Project Sedan.” Unpublished manuscript, May 20, 1964. Web Sources “Executive Summary: Plowshare Program—OSTI (Office of Scientific and Technical Information),” www.osti.gov/opennet/reports/plowshar.pdf. CHAPTER 10: THE GODZILLA OF PHYSICS Print Publications Appell, David. “The Supercollider That Never Was.” Scientific American (October 15, 2013). Anderson, Philip. “The Case Against the SSC.” The Scientist (June 1, 1987). Blau, Steven K.
stabilizing surfaces into the stern of the airship. Like feathers on an arrow.” A couple of days later, at Zeppelin’s invitation, Eckener had dinner with the Count at his hotel. Zeppelin poured out his life story, telling Eckener about his trip to America, about his balloon ascent in St. Paul, his dismissal from the army, the continual rejection, ridicule, and criticism of his ideas, and the loss of much of his personal fortune in building his first airship, the LZ 1. Nevertheless, he spoke as
transcended the limits and forms of daily living, and in fact of all ordinary experience. “No one who saw it could forget it,” said Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity test. “A foul and awesome display.” “The grandeur and magnitude of the phenomenon were completely breathtaking,” said Robert Serber, a Manhattan Project scientist. “The whole spectacle was so tremendous and one might almost say fantastic that the immediate reaction of the watchers was one of awe rather than excitement,”
proton-proton interactions, were all exceptionally risky ventures. But these difficulties were not often spoken of by the project’s advocates, who tended to promote a success narrative in which the SSC’s main problem was funding, after which everything else would fall into place and then sail along smoothly to the preordained grand conclusion: discovery of the Higgs particle and consequent vindication and refinement of the Standard Model. But such a rosy picture was hardly realistic. The SSC thus
proselytizer, builder, and launcher. The winner was former astronaut Mae Jemison, head of the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence. And by the fall of 2012, Jemison was fully in charge of a new, nongovernmental, nonprofit organization formally called (and trademarked as) the 100-Year Starship (100YSS). This, apparently, was the group that would take mankind’s first giant steps on its journey out of the solar system. The task facing Jemison’s nascent organization was of no small magnitude.