Ask a Scholar: What Caused the Oil Spill?

Indrek Wichman

Dear Ask a Scholar,  

What caused the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

Answered by Indrek Wichman, a professor of mechanical engineering at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Dr. Wichman received his Ph.D. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Princeton University. He researches combustion and flame studies. He is a member of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), the International Association for Fire Safety Science (IAFSS), and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). Mike Adams wrote about Dr. Wichman on in “I Intend to Protest Your Protest.”

What precipitated the entire event was a fire that consumed the oil rig and melted it. The fire killed all 11 workers as it was unsurvivable (we call it "flashover": no living thing can survive it). The entire rig was engulfed in flames, the smoke plume could be seen from outer space. When it operates correctly, the rig stays in its place on the water surface through the coordinated action of numerous motor-driven propellers which are in turn controlled by on-board computer and GPS systems. Think of a large houseboat with several outboard motors attached so it can easily move this way and that.  Well, the fire destroyed that intricate motion system so the rig just started to drift and then tore off its connection (at the ocean's floor). After that, we had the open well and the spill.

That's it in a nutshell: no fire, no disaster. We should be looking at what caused the fire, and we should learn what it took to close off the well.

By the way, the two space shuttle accidents were also fire-induced.

Each time this happens there is a great wringing of hands and a gnashing of teeth.  Such accidents are sometimes preventable.  To prevent them we need good engineering, which can only come from good engineers. That in turn is a matter of maintaining high admissions standards, a rigorous curriculum, uncompromising grading, and a commitment to professional excellence.  Trends in schools of engineering, unfortunately, cut in the other direction, and there is over-simplification of the educational challenges on both the political left and the political right. I can't say how much or how little this particular accident can be traced back to a particular admissions office, professor, easy-pass exam, etc. but the general principle stands:  the greater the tolerance for low performance in engineering schools, the greater the likelihood of accidents.

NAS can and should play a role in awakening Americans to the often tragic and sometimes catastrophic consequences of relaxing intellectual standards in a field such as engineering. 

* * * 

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Once upon a time, scholars were among the best sources of odd bits of knowledge. If you wanted to know which species of bees are native to Newfoundland, how many vice presidential candidates wore glasses, or whether Gilgamesh had a first name, you might well find an answer from a scholar who had a Xerxes-like command of a multitudinous army of facts. 

 Alas, Xerxes’ army came to grief and so did the idea of the professor as keeper of the archive of not-quite-lost knowledge. Today we have Google. And within the vast universe of Google, we have the endless corridors of Wikipedia. True, some of those corridors are blind alleys, but with a little patience, you can usually find what you need on the Internet and avoid having to move from your chair or speak to a person. Whether it is the Internet Movie Data Base or North American Bird Sounds, almost every domain of knowledge has its own easily-accessed reference tools. 

As a source of esoteric facts, the role of scholars has eroded. Fortunately, we still have questions that call for confidently rendered and dressed up opinions. “Ask a Scholar” matches readers’ questions to scholars who either have the answers or interesting ways of obscuring their ignorance. We invite readers to submit questionsClick on the link to send us an email, or you may submit questions via Intellectual Takeout's Ask the Professor feature.

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