Thankful Tech

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

I am thankful to God for many blessings.  I am thankful for the recent birth of our first grandchild.  I am thankful for a daughter opening a new chapter in her life by serving for a year in AmeriCorps.  I am thankful for those moments in our church worship service when the Spirit moves people to sing from their hearts in authentic worship.  I am thankful for the tomatoes that grow in a little pot on our back deck, slowly turning from green to red.  My gratitude extends to warm and water-proof winter boots, old friends that contact me out of the blue,  the smell of freshly baked pumpkin pie, the flash of a hawk swooping just past my car in search of a mouse on the side of the road, and the slow, majestic turn of Orion through the crisp winter sky.

My thanksgiving also extends to technology—and why not?  These are also good gifts from Godís hand.  Just because the farmer toiled to grow a crop of golden wheat does not negate the gift and he ought not neglect to say a prayer of thanks.  Just because the engineer toiled to design a new computer chip does not negate the gift and she ought not neglect to also give thanks.  Perhaps especially because we are stewards of creation, we should be grateful for our role and grateful for the creatures (living and non-living) under our care.

Since all good things come from Godís hand, letís be mindful to give thanks for our tech.  Thank God for electric guitars.  Thank God for GPS navigation in your car.  Thank him for wrinkle-resistant shirts, smartphone apps that help you remember the name of a tune, care pages on the web that let you send a get-well wish, and indoor plumbing.  Letís be thankful for amazing planes, trains, and automobiles.  Letís be thankful for beautiful bridges, power tools, and MRI machines.  (I’m even thankful for that little wire ring that helps hold up my tomatoes.) The devices, gadgets, and technologies that surround us are all bountiful blessings from the Lord.  Let us give thanks!

Guest Blog:  Fukushima and Unanticipated Interactions in Technological Systems

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

By Steven H. VanderLeest

Today I have a guest blog from my colleague at Calvin, Gayle Ermer, Professor of Engineering. 

Reactor Diagram

At 2:46 pm on March 11, 2011, electrical power generation from nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex on the eastern side of the island of Honshu was proceeding normally. Just another on-going technological process, one of many running quietly in the background, that sustained the everyday activities of the Japanese populace. A mere 4 hours later, everything had changed: the eyes of the world were focused on a potential nuclear disaster.

What caused this dramatic shift? The situation was certainly initiated by a natural disaster. An earthquake of unprecedented magnitude generated a massive tsunami that devastated the area, resulting in great loss of life and critical infrastructure damage. This disrupted the electrical power source used to pump cooling water into the reactor cores. But, the proximal cause was a series of technical failures (both in design and operation of the reactors) that left engineers working feverishly to find alternative ways to carry away waste heat and avoid nuclear meltdown. They were only partially successful. The next day, an explosion of trapped hydrogen gas generated from exposed fuel rods ruptured a containment building. Later analysis revealed that significant amounts of radioactive material had been released into the environment. The effect of the tsunami on the nuclear plant over the next days and weeks resulted in a verifiable nuclear disaster (even though the situation could have turned out much worse).

Careful consideration shows that the Fukushima events occurred due to a chain of interacting failures that escalated the harmful effects. Trouble with contemporary technology often comes from unanticipated interactions between otherwise minor failures. The complexity of modern technology can prevent us from compensating for these interactions. A nuclear energy generation system (as indicated by the reactor schematic above) has many subcomponents and interconnections. Engineers design these complicated structures by reducing the whole into smaller parts. Large systems are subdivided so that we can predict the behavior of the individual sub-systems and optimize their performance. We draw system boundaries to make possible this analysis, but this boundary-drawing activity can hide potential interactions. For example, the nuclear facility construction company engineer responsible for design of diesel backup generators to power reactor core cooling pumps might draw system boundaries that neglect or underestimate the effect of geological events (leaving that task to the site engineers). The generator size and location might then be chosen based primarily on cost and fuel efficiency, leaving the system as a whole vulnerable.

As engineers, we need to respond by consciously taking a more connectionist approach to technology design. Before and after the system has been subdivided for our modeling and analysis, we need to look outside our own system boundaries to make sure we are making decisions that donít compromise the safety of the overall system. This is a difficult task. A Christian understanding of reality recognizes that our knowledge will always be finite. Only God is all-knowing and can comprehend the intricacies of all of the phenomena, including tectonic plate shifts and nuclear fission reactions, that will influence our designs.  We also live in a fallen world as a result of human sin. Genesis 3 reminds us that ďthrough painful toil you will eat food from [the earth] all the days of your lifeÖ By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.Ē Our efforts in anticipating the behavior of engineered systems will always be challenging: no powerful technology, such as nuclear power, can ever be made completely risk-free. But our Christian convictions should prompt us to apply our creativity and analytical abilities in a connectionist framework which will make it possible to decrease the hazards of technology failure.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest