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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: June 2014

Conclusion: the golem goes to work

Summary

Promises delivered

The conclusion of The Golem, the first volume in this series, argued that the book had wide significance where science touched on matters of public concern. Here we deliver on that promise.

The chapter on the Challenger explosion shows the way that human error is taken to account for technological failure and shows how unfair it is to assign blame to individuals when the uncertainties are endemic to the system as a whole.

The Challenger enquiry is one case among many that reveals that when the public views the fruits of science from a distance the picture is not just simplified but significantly distorted. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman demonstrated on TV that when a piece of rubber O-ring was placed in a glass of iced water it lost resilience. This was at best trivial – the effect of low temperature on rubberwas alreadywell understood by the engineers. At worst it was a dangerously misleading charade – an acting-out of the most naive model of scientific analysis. The crucial question was not whether low temperature affected the O-rings but whether NASA had reason to believe this would cause them to fail. Feynman gives the impression that doubts can always be simply resolved by a scientist who is smart enough.