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Surely You’re Joking, Dr. Feynman

As an ominous pool of crude oil slowly makes its way to the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, word comes from Washington that President Obama has appointed a special blue-ribbon commission to conduct an official investigation of the gargantuan oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The president’s action elevates the sinking of BP’s deep-water rig to the status of a once-in-a-decade mega-disaster involving a major equipment malfunction. The blue-ribbon treatment previously was bestowed on the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in 1979 and the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986.

If this commission holds true to the pattern of the previous high-level panels, we can expect a basic ritual to unfold in coming months:

A group of pedigreed eggheads (usually including a couple of Nobel laureates) and a few former government officials will conduct a series of public hearings that drill down to the brain-numbing technical minutiae of the disaster. After much cogitation, one of the panel members suddenly will identify a jaw-dropping instance of human error as the primary cause of the catastrophe.

Such an epiphany occurred during the investigation of the Challenger disaster. After quietly sitting for weeks listening to officials from NASA claim they couldn’t have prevented the shuttle explosion, which killed seven astronauts, Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman calmly asked for a glass of ice water.

As a roomful of astonished spectators watched, Dr. Feynman took a piece of the rubber O-ring gasket NASA used to seal the bottom of its booster rockets and dumped it into the ice water. Ten minutes later, he pulled the frozen gasket out of the water and snapped it in two with his thumb and forefinger. The O-rings were designed to prevent red-hot gases from escaping from the boosters and igniting the shuttle’s huge fuel tank. Unfortunately, they were not designed to function below freezing, and NASA—embarrassed by repeated launch delays—had permitted Challenger to launch on an unusually cold 31-degree day in Florida. Case closed.

Based on what we have heard thus far, we suspect the blue-ribbon treatment of the big oil spill will produce similar results.

An experimental rig drills more than a mile down into the Gulf of Mexico. It appears to have been equipped with a blowout prevention system that was never tested below a couple of hundred feet. Pressure simulation tests were fudged, etc.  When the inevitable moment of clarity arrives, it probably will bring to mind the title a famous blue-ribbon participant affixed to his memoirs:

“Surely You’re Joking, Dr. Feynman.”

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