The Risk of Just about Everything
A news item from the UK a couple of days ago piqued my interest--an expensive house had caught fire because a crystal doorknob had concentrated the the rays of the sun.
My first thought was to wonder how such a well-known and well-understood phenomena could have caused such a problem. After all, most of us learn as young children how a magnifying glass can burn a hole in a piece of paper. It may be one of the first scientific principles we are able to demonstrate for ourselves.
But, looking at this incident another way, builders have been installing doorknobs in homes for centuries. It even looks like crystal doorknobs have been around for a long time. Who would stop to think that a doorknob might carry a risk of fire? Who would think to look around to see if the sun could strike it directly?
From there, I thought about parallels to other situations. Although this particular incident seems bizarre, the news is full of reports of injuries or deaths from consumer products used in ways that weren't expected, or from malfunctions of devices because something about the environment wasn't considered. It isn't only high technology. Plastic bags have warnings on them because children have suffocated playing with them. No one anticipated that before it happened.
The question is, where does this understanding leave us? It would be easy to say there should be no crystal doorknobs. Certainly, in the case of doorknobs, we could live without ones made of crystal. But what if we didn't understand that the problem was caused by the fact that the doorknob was made of crystal? What if we thought all doorknobs were a problem, and we insisted that houses be built without doorknobs? Or that living in a house is dangerous because it can catch fire?
The reality is that, in most cases, it is not so easy simply to reject a technology or a device completely. If we had rejected every technology and every device that had ever caused any type of damage or injury, we would still be living in the Stone Age. We'd have no heat, no vehicles of any type, and certainly no electricity.
So, although my thought train started with a news item about a fire caused by a crystal doorknob, it moved on to other technologies, and ultimately, to nuclear power plants.
I guess the first connection I saw was the fact that something unexpected happened, even though in this case, the cause was something so simple and basic that every child has seen the phenomenon. It made me wonder why people are always surprised when we run into an unexpected problem in a complex system like an industrial facility or a nuclear power plant.
Then, I thought about what happened after the fire started. Even though this particular event was unanticipated, the house had a system in place to provide a warning that there was a fire. The fire alarm had not been installed because of the crystal doorknob, but it was a basic safety system that operated when this fire occurred. Likewise, nuclear power plants have in place a robust set of warning systems.
The analogy probably ends there, because nuclear power plants have far more layers of defense than a private home. Nuclear power plants also have backup systems and other features that a house doesn't have to help deal with incidents. And the nuclear power infrastructure--the plant management and the regulator--reviews any incident for lessons learned and needed changes.
In the end, then, the message I get from the crystal doorknob is a complex one. Even the most benign of objects can carry a risk we may not anticipate. Instead of banning things when we discover a problem, we are better off if we learn from them, whether it is a fire-producing doorknob or a nuclear power plant. Depending on the exact problem, we provide instructions for use or warnings about risks, or we modify devices to be safer, or we put in warning systems such as fire alarms or backup systems to allow operation to continue without interruption, or we install systems to mitigate the situation.
In the case of the crystal doorknobs, the London fire department is warning people not to put crystal objects in direct sunlight. That seems to be an appropriate response to the problem.