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Engineering as Social

Experimentation

LECTURE 3

A famous Titanic Ship


As it departed on its maiden voyage in April 1912, the Titanic
was proclaimed the greatest engineering achievement ever. Not
merely was it the largest ship the world had seen, having a
length of almost three football fields; it was also the most
glamorous of ocean liners, and it was touted as the first fully
safe ship.
Because the worst collision envisaged was at the juncture of two
of its sixteen watertight compartments, and as it could float with
any four compartments flooded, the Titanic was believed to be
virtually unsinkable

Consequence of An overconfident attitude


Buoyed by such confidence, the captain allowed the ship to sail full speed at night
in an area frequented by icebergs.
Results
One of the iceberg tore a large gap in the ships side, flooding five compartments.
Time remained to evacuate the ship, but there were not enough lifeboats
Because British regulations then in effect did not foresee vessels of this size, only
825 places were required in lifeboats, sufficient for a mere one-quarter of the
Titanics capacity of 3,547 passengers and crew.
No extra precautions had seemed necessary for an unsinkable ship.
The result: 1,522 dead (drowned or frozen) out of the 2,227 on board for the
Titanics first trip

So many products of technology present potential dangers that engineering


should be regarded as an inherently risky activity.
To underscore this fact and help to explore its ethical implications, we
suggest that engineering should be viewed as an experimental process.
Not as an experiment under controlled lab conditions. Rather, it is an
experiment on a social scale involving human subjects.

Engineering as experimentation
Experimentation is commonly recognized as playing an essential role in the
design process. Preliminary tests or simulations are conducted from the time
it is decided to convert a new engineering concept into its first rough design.
Materials and processes are tried out, usually employing formal experimental
techniques. Such tests serve as the basis for more detailed designs, which in
turn are tested.
At the production stage further tests are run, until a finished product evolves.
The normal design process is thus iterative, carried out on trial designs with
modifications being made on the basis of feedback information acquired from
tests.

Similarities to standard
experiments
Uncertainty
1) Before and during the project
First, any project is carried out in partial ignorance. There are uncertainties in the
abstract model used for the design calculations; there are uncertainties in the
precise characteristics of the materials purchased; there are uncertainties in the
precision of materials processing and fabrication; there are uncertainties about
the nature of the stresses the finished product will encounter.
2) After the project
Second, the final outcomes of engineering projects, like those of experiments, are
generally uncertain. Often in engineering it is not even known what the possible
outcomes may be, and great risks may attend even seemingly benign projects. Eg, Effect of reservoir on the social fabric of the region or ecosystem.

Clicker Question
Give 3 more practical examples of the of the uncertainties after the
engineering project

Similarities to standard
experiments
3) Knowledge gained before and after the project
That is, ongoing success in engineering depends on gaining new knowledge,
as does ongoing success in experimentation. Monitoring is thus as essential
to engineering as it is to experimentation in general.
To monitor is to make periodic observations and tests to check for both
successful performance and unintended side effects.
It serves as ultimate test of a products efficiency, safety, cost-effectiveness,
environmental impact, and aesthetic value lies in how well that product
functions within society,

Learning from the past


Usually engineers learn from their own earlier design and operating results,
as well as from those of other engineers, but unfortunately that is not always
the case
Lack of established channels of communication, misplaced pride in not asking
for information, embarrassment at failure or fear of litigation, and plain
neglect often impede the flow of such information and lead to many
repetitions of past mistakes.

Examples
1. The Titanic lacked a sufficient number of lifeboats decades after most of the
passengers and crew on the steamship Arctic had perished because of the same
problem.
2. Complete lack of protection against impact by shipping caused Swedens worst ever
bridge collapse on Friday as a result of which eight people were killed. Thus reported
the New Civil Engineer on January 24, 1980. Engineers now recommend the use of
floating concrete bumpers that can deflect ships, but that recommendation is rarely
heeded as seen by the 1993 collapse of the Bayou Canot bridge that cost 43 passengers
of the Sunset Limited their lives.
3. Valves are notorious for being among the least reliable components of hydraulic
systems. It was a pressure relief valve, and a lack of definitive information regarding its
open or shut state, which contributed to the nuclear reactor accident at Three Mile Island
on March 28, 1979. Similar malfunctions had occurred with identical valves on nuclear
reactors at other locations. The required reports had been filed with Babcock and Wilcox,
the reactors manufacturer, but no attention had been given to them.

Clicker Question
Give an example from Pakistan
Hint: Think about monsoon season