The Death of Certainty

Thinking about complexity, modernity, and the loss of certainty on the anniversary of the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia.  Written in 2002. 


Over the next weeks, there will be many words spent on the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy, right up to the moment something more sensational, more newsworthy, or both makes its way into our real time, 24x7 collective psyche. Perhaps it will be a terrorist strike. Perhaps it will be the sound and fury of the United States armed forces lighting up Sadam’s favorite palaces. Perhaps it will be something else. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but we all know how this works.

The loss of the Columbia is clearly shocking, even tragic. If you work for NASA, or worse, are family of one of the astronauts, it was and is a complete disaster. Wives are now widows, children are now orphans, mothers and fathers are now childless. There will be forensics, investigations, guesses and second guesses, histrionics, and finally litigation. Something certainly went wrong, and someone will ultimately be asked to offer up a hypothesis of what and how. 

Ultimately, the program will continue, budgets will increase, and Boeing and a hundred other commercial firms will spend millions of dollars in legal fees, and insurance and reinsurance companies will spend millions more, compensating justifiably bereaved people and their attorneys for what was—and this is the part we really do need to understand—an event that was not the result of negligence (though there may have been some), was not the result of carelessness or even budget cuts, was not a freakish occurrence, but was, in fact, a relatively high-probability event. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

It wasn’t a question of “if,” it was only a question of “when.”

The Cost of Complexity

The Space Shuttle is arguably the most complex system ever assembled by mankind. Each vehicle cost about USD$2 billion to build, and another USD$400 million or so to process, launch, and recover. Each has a stated useful life of 100 flights, and according to the statistics I am able to find, none has flown more than 20 times.

  • Enterprise was a test craft which was never flown.
  • Columbia first flew on 12 April 1981. It flew 18 missions.
  • Challenger first flew on 4 April 1983. It flew 10 missions. It was destroyed 71 seconds after launch on 28 Jan 1986.
  • Discovery first flew on 30 April 1984. It has flown 19 missions
  • Atlantis first flew on 3 November 1985. It has flown 14 missions.
  • Endeavour first flew on 7 May 1992. It has flown eight missions. It was the replacement for Challenger.

The specifications of the Space Shuttle’s engines, thrust, and dynamic forces generated during liftoff are simply beyond comprehension, rivaled only by the immense stresses and temperatures experienced upon re-entry. There is literally nothing like the Space Shuttle in our world or our experience. Or is there?

On a slightly less grand scale, the Super Sonic Transport known as the Concorde echoes the same quest for mastery of time and space, the same staunch belief in man’s ability to master any physical problem, the same drive to dominate the forces of nature as we seek to explore and understand its mysteries.

The Concorde was and is the only civilian aircraft built to operate at supersonic speeds. Built by a partnership between, the British Aircraft Corporation (now British Aerospace) and Aerospatiale, this unlikely marriage ultimately resulted in 20 of the iconic beasts, with each country coming away with one prototype, one pre-production version, and eight production aircraft. According to the people who know, Concorde was subjected to 5,000 hours of testing by the time it was certificated for passenger flight, making it the most tested aircraft in aviation history.

None of which prevented one from falling out of the sky shortly after takeoff on July 25, 2000, killing all 100 passengers, nine crew members, and four people on the ground as Flight AF4590 crashed in flames into the Hotelissimo hotel in the town of Gonesse just north of Paris. An article called Safety in Numbers by Peter Huber, published in Forbes Magazine shortly after, had this to say about an event that by any objective standard, was far more tragic and catastrophic than the Columbia’s demise.

AFTER THE CRASH ALMOST EVERYONE REMARKED that the Concorde had had a stellar safety record in its previous 24 years of commercial operation. That a catastrophic failure of one of Goodyear's tires could bring down the aircraft, with its 109 passengers and crew, came as a complete surprise . . . 

Here's another view. The Concorde was an icon of engineering arrogance and statistical ignorance. Forget about Concorde's "24 years of safe operation." Unless you're a test pilot, paid to stretch the odds, don't fly in an aircraft that's 1 of only 12 like it. Favor mass-market products, like Firestone's ATX [at the time, Ford and Firestone were deep in the Explorer roll-over fiasco]. It had a production run of 6.5 million. And it was grounded a lot faster than the jet was . . . 

As they sifted through early accident reports, Firestone and Ford had to make hard calls about what was really going wrong, keeping in mind that in a million-vehicle fleet, some number of accidents are inevitable, however tragic that fact may be. The Concorde's owners had to make their calls at the other end of the statistical curve, with far too little experience in hand. A company with millions of cars on the road has to discount a lot of real accidents. One with only a dozen aircraft in the air has to take every narrow escape as seriously as a crash.

The Concorde's owners didn't. The jet had already survived at least one burst-tire incident that gravely damaged a fuel tank. If the Boeing 747, a much more common plane of about the same vintage, had been as vulnerable as the Concorde, it would have experienced serious fuel-tank damage every few months. But the Concorde's owners reacted to the harbingers of disaster much as NASA did when it downplayed early signs of trouble with the shuttle's O-rings.

To say that they should have learned more from prior incidents is to miss the main point, however. Firestone and Ford may not have reacted as quickly as they should have when reports of serious accidents began to accumulate. The Concorde's owners made a much more fundamental mistake. They opted to fly a 12-aircraft fleet. 

There it is, the hidden lesson that few will see, and fewer will want to contemplate: complex systems inevitably produce a full spectrum of outcomes, not all of which can be planned for or mitigated. Or to state it another way, too much complexity spread over too few events and even fewer systems is a disaster waiting to happen. It’s true in nature, and it’s certainly true in the world of man made systems. 

  • It was true for the Concorde. Eight percent of them have failed spectacularly. It is manifestly true of the Space Shuttle.

  • Of the six shuttles—Enterprise, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavor—one never flew and two have been destroyed in stunning fashion. 

  • And just to take one example from the world of business, the same seems true of AOL/Time Warner, an overly large, too hastily assembled, overly complex system—if we can use the word—if there ever was one. 

Failure somewhere in all that complexity isn’t anomalous, it is inevitable. The only real questions were, “how big, how messy, and how soon?” As the noted psychiatrist C.G. Jung says in his essay, “Healing the Split” . . .

"Our intellect has created a new world that dominates nature, and has populated it with monstrous machines. The latter are so indubitably useful and so much needed that we cannot see even a possibility of getting id of them or of our odious subservience to them. Man is bound to follow the exploits of his scientific and inventive mind and to admire himself for his splendid achievements. At the same time, he cannot help admitting that his genius shows an uncanny tendency to invent things that become more and more dangerous, because they represent better and better means for wholesale suicide."

Death of Certainty

Building and flying the Space Shuttle, or the Concorde, or AOL/Time Warner is an act of hubris, but that doesn’t, in and of itself, make doing it a bad thing. Unreasonable goals—like going to the moon or building an orbiting space station—are accomplished by otherwise reasonable men and women repeatedly saying “yes” when all the rational evidence around them says “no.” It is this sensibility that got Chris Columbus on a boat heading West. It’s what got Shackleton and his crew on a boat headed South. It’s what got Sir Edmund Hillary headed up. It’s what put Yuri Gagarin in space. It is how we, or at least some of us, are inclined to behave.

But along with these acts of hubris—these acts that seemingly defy the laws of God and nature—comes a chorus of approbation from those who see cosmic sorrow and eternal damnation as the concomitant to temporal progress. After all, pride goeth before fall, doesn’t it?

I’m inclined to agree with Jung on this matter.

"Man today is painfully aware of the fact that neither his great religions nor his various philosophies seem to provide him with those powerful ideas that would give him the certainty and security he needs in face of the present condition of the world."

I think that’s it in a nutshell. The more rational we become, the less certain we can be. The more “modern” we become, the less we’re able to find satisfying explanations for why things happen the way they do. Modernity, in all it cacophonous complexity, has delivered ten uncertainties for every “problem” it has solved. We simply can’t get rid of risk, unpleasantness, chance, or death, no matter how much technology, social policy, and litigation we throw at the problem.

USD$400 million ought to be enough to ensure that a $2 billion engineering marvel can go up and down, but it’s not. Spending the USSR into economic and military oblivion brought down a Wall in 1989 and signaled the collapse and relevance of a tyrannical and morally bankrupt political system, at least in Europe. There are still people who think that should have been enough to ensure an epoch of perpetual peace. It wasn’t. It isn’t.

Things happen. Some say they happen for a reason, and maybe there are cosmic reasons why the Columbia fell out of the sky. Not being omniscient myself, I can’t say for sure. So for the time being, I’m going with my “complex systems inevitably produce a full spectrum of outcomes” theory.

The destruction of the Columbia seems especially cruel in this season of uncertainty. The U.S. capital markets have been staggering downward, evaporating trillions of dollars of paper wealth, going on three years now. The U.S. economy is in a full-scale recession and consumer confidence is at a gut wrenching low. Our President is bent on going to war with Iraq, an exceedingly complex enterprise that has a wide range of possible outcomes, most of which seem bad or worse. There is a homicidal mad man sitting in North Korea, just itching to start a ruckus. The U.S. tax payers are bracing for a flow of federal, state, and local red ink that defies comprehension. And now this, yet another icon of American might incinerating on live TV. What next? 

There’s an answer to that question, but we won’t know it until it happens. What we also don’t know, but what we can control, is how we view our lives, how we view the events that present themselves for our attention and consideration. 

There’s an old proverb that goes something like this.

A man wakes up one day to find that his fence has broken and his horse has run away. His neighbor hears of the calamity and comes by to commiserate. “Your horse ran away? That’s terrible.”

“Well” said the farmer, “maybe not. My son went looking for our horse. He didn’t find him, but did fine a dozen fine wild horses instead.”

“Ah, that’s good” said the neighbor.

“Not so good” said the farmer. “My son got up on one and was thrown off and broke his leg.”

“That’s terrible” said the neighbor.

“Not so terrible” said the farmer. “The Cossacks came through looking to draft every able bodied man into the army. As my son’s leg was broken, they passed us by.”

And so it goes.

We crave certainty and there isn’t any. There wasn’t any when homo erectus was out and about looking for dinner. There wasn’t any when Rome ruled from here to there and back again. There wasn’t any on September 11. There wasn't any on February 1, 2003 when Columbia has headed for a landing in Florida. There isn’t any today. Stuff happens, and that’s just the way it goes. 

None of that will change. Modernity breeds complexity, and complexity breeds uncertainty. The question is: can you keep going? Can you survive, no, can you thrive, even though you can’t know for sure what’s next? Your ancestors did. Their ancestors did. How about you?

Kevin Hoffberg