In one’s professional life there are certain critical works that open your eyes to how lucidly a technical argument can be stated.
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. When playing Russian roulette the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the next.
For me, Richard Feynman’s dissection of the mummery surrounding NASA’s pronouncements on space shuttle reliability prior to the Challenger disaster is one such work (1). What comes through in Feynman’s report is how time and again NASA’s engineers and administrators failed to recognise how they were increasingly operating beyond the limits of their knowledge and therefore failed to address the ontological risk that this introduced.
But it’s as an accessible and understandable explanation of how NASA arrived at such a state that Feynam’s work really shines. I must confess that each time I read this report I get more out of, so I’ve attached a link to an annotated version of the report here, enjoy. If your interested in exploring Richard Feynman’s other works then I also recommend starting with The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, especially his essay on what it was like to work in the Manhatten project as a junior bod.
As my understanding of the circumstances surrounding the Challenger launch decision has deepened I find that my opinion has differed, perhaps significantly, from that of Dick Feyman. I now place much more emphasis upon the failure of communication on the part of the engineers in effectively presenting the data to the management team in such a way that the risk was clearly understandable. And the cause of this failure? In my opinion, la déformation professionnelle.
Feynman, R. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Penguin 2000.
1. On a historical note Feynman’s observations were apparently only included in the final official presidential investigation report after he threatened to split from the board and publish his observations as a minority report.