Charting Alien Waters

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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.)

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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.

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