Editorial: When disaster strikes

Engineering failures have been blamed for many a disaster, from the poor ship design that sank the Titanic to overcomplicated financial engineering that sank the world economy. Is it fair?

On page 18, we examine the reasons behind ten of the most famous disasters in the world. Many of them were large engineering projects but managers, politicians, builders and even decorators are more often to blame than engineers. Nick Spurrier teases out the lesson that was learned - well, usually learned - from each disaster.

Disaster can seriously hold back a technology if it comes at a pivotal moment. The aerospace industry has never been allowed to forget the Hindenburg explosion, if only because it was filmed and then watched all over the world. Only now, 70 years later, a change of emphasis from speed to sustainability is leading to a flurry of new airship projects from companies ranging from start-ups to the biggest names in aerospace. Find out how airships are coming back - bigger as well as better - on page 26.

Disaster can also boost a technology. A century ago, wireless technology saved lives from a sinking ship and showed the world what massive potential Marconi's new invention really had. Read the story of RMS Republic on page 86.

It's just one example of how technology can help to mitigate disaster, sometimes in unexpected ways. On page 22, Michael Bond reveals how the way people react in disaster situations is helping engineers design safer tower blocks, venues and transport. There's a famous evacuation simulation, which I've heard more than once from colleagues as our plane taxis ready for takeoff, in which the first students to get out were promised £10, resulting in total chaos. I was relieved to read that victims in life and death situations behave more cooperatively than students do for beer money.

Don't worry, the saying goes, it might never happen. True, and major disasters are thankfully very rare - or are they? As John Casti explains on page 84, disaster strikes more often than people think. The frequency they occur doesn't, in fact, take a classic bell curve shape but comes with something called a fat tail. So don't say you haven't been warned.

As systems become more complicated, there's more to go wrong. Chris Edwards has some examples in the electronics section on page 34. He examines some disastrous interfaces, made from modules or systems that were predictable on their own but when combined produced some unpredictable and ultimately disastrous outcomes, ranging from the loss of NASA's Mars Polar Lander to the 1996 Dominican Republic plane crash.

Globalisation, communications and information technology means the world's economies are more tied up together than ever before, as we have all witnessed over the last year. Business disaster spreads like wildfire. It's a good time, then, to read our feature on page 70 about corporate disasters and the lessons to be learned from them. John Dwyer asks some top lawyers and accountants what makes firms fail and how to avoid the sort of mistakes that ultimately destroy companies. Don't panic, seems to be a key message, and don't do anything rash that you might regret later.

Does everyone in your team agree with each other? Do you all feel safe in the knowledge that you're all great minds thinking alike with no annoying dissenters? Then make sure you read our feature on the dangers of 'groupthink' on page 74 so you can avoid any "D'oh" moments.

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