Charting Alien Waters

More

While Stephen Hawking frets about the havoc that could be wrought by extraterrestrials (see the excellent take by my friend the SETI astronomer Seth Shostak, quoted here), the exploration of our own aquatic space puts not only hypothetical galactic invaders but real car bomb terrorists in perspective. As the Washington Post's Joel Achenbach puts it:

There have been blowouts since the dawn of the oil drilling industry, but never a blowout like this. This one is the deepest on record, industry officials say. A blowout last August in the Timor Sea had some similarities, but it was in much shallower water. Capping the unsealed well, said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, is as tricky as getting the Apollo 13 astronauts home safely in their damaged spaceship.

"We have gone to a different planet in going to the deepwater. An alien environment," oil industry analyst Byron King said. "And what do you know from every science fiction movie? The aliens can kill us.

At the intersection of physical, chemical, geological, and biological systems -- which is where offshore drilling is -- complexity seems to grow geometrically while our understanding tries to catch up arithmetically.

Would you believe that until 15 years ago Congress actually had a respected agency for studying complex technological risks, signed into law by President Nixon and abolished under President Clinton? Here's a tribute by a Republican. Would the continued existence of the Office of Technology Assessment have made a difference for offshore drilling safety or other issues? I'm not sure, but its demise and the failure to re-establish it certainly didn't help. (The Obama campaign published an interesting commentary in 2008.)

Jump to comments
Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Fascinating Short Film About the Multiverse

If life is a series of infinite possibilities, what does it mean to be alive?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In