May. 27th, 2010

In the worlds imagined by Marvel and DC, those with special gifts (derived from accidents of birth or lifelong dedicated work) often choose to dress up in special outfits and Fight Evil. Sometimes, they band together in organizations to Fight Evil more effectively.

In this world, wouldn't it be nice if people with special skills got together to Fight Stupidity?

For example, as near as I can tell, the folks who built the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig decided to put multiple redundant valves on the well, so that if one failed, another could still be used to shut the well down. That's good. Then they bought multiple identical valves, each with the same failure modes, from the same manufacturer. That's not so smart.

Wouldn't it be great if there were some organization of super-engineers, folks of Tony Stark's caliber, who were paid to notice problems like this in advance and draw up plans for how to stop a hypothesized oil leak using technology and tools that currently exist? "Hey, Buckaroo, did you see this oil rig design?" "Yeah, Tony, I did -- someday, if that runs into problems with methyl hydrates, it could leak millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico." "Do you think they could stop a leak, if one happened, by plugging the hole with mud?" "No, you'd need a containment vessel, too -- who do we know who has a reinforced dome 200 feet across that can handle the pressure at that depth?"

It's nice to imagine Buckaroo Banzai, Tony Stark, a few of the materials scientists who support Batman, and Reed Richards drawing a salary to deal with problems in our world.

Failing that, though -- could we have skilled engineers and scientists draw a salary funded by philanthropists to work out answers to "what if" problems?

Or could there be some way to identify and brainstorm problems a little bit at a time, similar to the way the "SETI at Home" divided up data analysis tasks? If volunteers with appropriate background knowledge each worked on problems in their "spare" time in ad-hoc teams, linked by wikis....



May 2010

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