Margin of Error

On display until this May at the The Wolfsonian-FIU in South Beach, the “Margin of Error” exhibition explores cultural responses to mechanical mastery and engineered catastrophes of the modern age—the shipwrecks, crashes, explosions, collapses, and novel types of workplace injury that interrupt the path of progress. The exhibition traces the narrative of technological ambition from myth and triumph to peril and accident prevention through over two hundred works from the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including decorative and graphic art, painting, sculpture, industrial artifacts, photography, and ephemera. Error is at the root of one my favorite definitions of science, one by German poet Bertolt Brecht: “The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error.” In a way, the story of science and technology, is that of constraining, understanding, and embracing error. That is what I tried to convey with the tangential snippets I shared during my takeover tour of the exhibition on February 19. Some of those, I share below.

“Margin of Error” takes the story of Prometheus, the cunning and ill fated Greek deity said to have gifted fire to mankind, as its point of departure. Fire is also at my point of departure as a scientist. I was a little boy. I had not yet started school. I remember well. Do you know how some things you just remember? This is one of those things. I do not just recollected it because I have been told the story many times by others. The memory is still clear in my mind. Back at home, we used to have a fire stove. One day, I sneaked into the kitchen as my mum stepped out for a second. The phone may have rung. I grabbed a stool and committed to touch, with my right hand, the colorful flame heating up my lunch. Ouch! Immediately, I thought of many interesting questions. Of course, I tried again, this time with my left hand. Ouch! I did not know back then but, inadvertently, I was being introduced to the wonders of the scientific method. I was making mistakes and, hopefully, learning from them.

Curator Matthew Abess, who organized the installation, sees it as “a reminder of how every step forward brings us that much closer to the edge of some cliff—how we are in equal measures masters of the universe, and masters of its unmaking.” Progress is, sometimes, a story of accidents. From construction and electricity to transportation, advanced infrastructure, utilities, and modes of production have given rise to a new repertoire of visual symbols for describing visionary pursuits, casting man as a race of builders bending the world to its will. Often, these are nothing but the result of our innate inquisitive nature.

People were often accidentally aware of lightning and shocks from electric fish long before any knowledge of electricity existed. Ancient cultures around the Mediterranean knew that rods of amber could be rubbed with fur to attract light objects like feathers. Actually, English astronomer William Gilbert coined the word electricus to refer to the property of attracting small objects with amber after being rubbed. The word electricus, from the Greek elektron means “of amber.” In the early days of electricity, people took great risks when conducting demonstrations because they did not always comprehend they could die as a result. Sometimes, those demonstrations were fatal. On those days, electricity belonged to the world of magic. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke was on point when he once said “magic is just science that we do not yet understand.”

In the 1740s, people used electricity for magic tricks by creating sparks and shocks. Still today, I use it sometimes when I want to impress someone at a dinner party. People back then conducted experiments with electricity, but scientific thinking about electricity had not changed much in hundreds of years. That all changed with one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin, who proved that electricity and lightning were the same with the help of a kite and a key. Next we know, he invented the lightning rod, his most important invention according to him, and save many from losing their lives and homes to lightning fires. About a hundred years later, Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction: the generation of electricity in a wire by means of the electromagnetic effect of a current in another wire. From it came the first electric motor. Full disclosure, Faraday, someone that fittingly said that “the failures are just as important as the successes,” and educated himself, since an early age, by reading as many books as possible during a seven-year apprenticeship at a local London bookbinding and bookselling business, is one of my favorite scientists.

Another one of my favorite scientists is Nicola Tesla, the brilliant and eccentric genius whose inventions enabled modern-day power and mass communication systems, and one side of the infamous “War of Currents.” His nemesis, and former boss, Thomas Edison, is known as the iconic inventor of the light bulb, the phonograph, and the moving picture, although he was a businessman more than he was an inventor. As The Oatmeal perfectly stated in one of his comic strips, “Tesla was the greatest geek that ever lived,” while “Edison was not a geek; he was a CEO.” In the 1880s, the two waged their war over whose electrical system would power the world: Tesla’s alternating current or Edison’s direct current. Edison went as far as electrocuting animals using Tesla’s system to tarnish it. Nevertheless, alternating current’s longer reach, higher voltages, and thinner wires decided the war in its favor. Today, our electricity is still predominantly powered by alternating current, but some items such as computers, solar cells and electric vehicles all run on the power of direct current.

Through history, transportation is another iconic source of unfortunate wrongdoing. The sinking of the Titanic and the Hindenburg disaster are two iconic examples. The Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean during its inaugural voyage from Southampton to New York City, after colliding with an iceberg. And yes, there was room for Leo on that floating door. “The tip of the iceberg” is the small, perceptible portion of something that is way larger, but remains hidden; this we undoubtedly learned in the early morning of April 15, 1912. In a way, science, and our inquisitive way towards the world around us, lives at this tip. What’s hidden, though, manages to keep us both curious and humble.

The Hindenburg disaster in 1937 is largely famous because of the iconic film footage: “Oh, the humanity!” Nevertheless, it is not the deadliest zeppelin incident. Actually, after a previous deadlier crash, Hindenburg’s designer Hugo Eckener sought to use helium, a less flammable lifting gas, instead of hydrogen. However, the United States of America had a monopoly on the world supply of helium, and banned its export fearing that other countries would use it for military purposes. No one really knows what would have happen if the notorious zeppelin would have been filled with helium, as no one knows either what exactly caused the disaster in the first place, but we certainly could have lowered the foreseeable risks. And that should always be our goal.

When thinking about space exploration and misfortune, everyone remembers the Challenger disaster 30 years ago. A disaster that we now know could have been prevented. The morning before the launch, a handful of NASA engineers argued for hours that the launch would be the coldest ever, and the data showed that the rubber seals on the shuttle’s booster rockets wouldn’t seal properly in cold temperatures. After the disaster, a heartfelt president Reagan addressed the nation: “We will continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.” His words, and those journeys, somehow reminded me of those president Kennedy pronounced in 1962 as he jumpstarted the space race: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” The truth is, when we have accepted a challenge, we have not joked around. Only seven years later, astronaut Neil Armstrong took his one small step on the Moon. And, when you think about it, that was only 66 years after Orville Wright from the Wright Brothers piloted the first ever powered airplane in Kitty Hawk, after humans had dreamt about flying for thousands of years.

Progress, in all fields, comes sometimes at a price. A price that requires we understand the greater good, the larger picture, and the fact that there will always be a margin of error, no matter how small, and artifacts to remind us of both our failures and our successes.

 

 

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