Car salesmen lie, politicians lie, insurance companies lie … on and on. But engineers are always constrained by reality. Only facts and unsentimental logic make possible an affordable automobile that gets 30-miles to the gallon, or keep a miles-long bridge standing.

Happy-talk and wishes don’t get it done.

And so — like engineers everywhere, I imagine — I was saddened to learn that civil and criminal charges are about to be levied against the designers and builders of Massachusetts’ Big Dig tunnel. It is, first, a terrible black-eye for the rarely-recognized engineering profession that makes virtually all of civilization’s taken-for-granted amenities possible. Worse, the mobilizing of lawyers, in combination with reportage barely competent to say which way water runs, means that the public is unlikely to ever know the truth about what went wrong, and designers are unlikely to ever get a clean shot at learning the lessons the failures offer.

The abiding truism of engineering design is this: Failures teach more than success. We have equations developed to account for the behavior of materials over the commonplace range of service conditions — and masters who always want more, preferably without paying for it: Longer bridges, taller buildings, more miles-per-gallon, greater throughput, shorter schedules. Inevitably, relying upon what has worked in the past, design tippy-toes into uncharted territory. More often than not — far more often than not — no harm is done because the safety factors built into the system writ large cover the slop. But every now and then it all goes terribly, awfully, heart-breakingly wrong.

It may be that what went wrong in Boston is no more complicated than a toe-too-far into the unknown, not even recognized when it happened.

But the talk of criminal charges — manslaughter, specifically — suggests something else: recklessness. And because it will be easy to find disgruntled technicians and workers willing to say “I knew all along there were problems,” and because the press — reasoning that where there’s smoke there’s fire and, after all, somebody did die — will doubtless focus on those assertions, even if they’re made by ignoramuses or chronic malcontents, this will almost certainly become a tale of venality and greed, whatever the truth actually is. Politicians, too, will prefer to make of it all a morality play, with 2-dimensional good and evil characters.

It’s going to be very hard to learn the truth, if we ever do.

Bob Felton

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