Thursday, July 14, 2011

Managers vs. Engineers

"Two new books now raise the question of whether Richard Feynman is rising to the status of superstar," says Freeman Dyson of his mentor in this review — The ‘Dramatic Picture’ of Richard Feynman. He has long held the "status of superstar" among the nerds I teach here in Korea.

Among the many fascinating episodes recounted in the review, this one stands out:
    [W]hen Feynman was mortally ill with cancer, he served on the NASA commission investigating the Challenger disaster of 1986. He undertook this job reluctantly, knowing that it would use up most of the time and strength that he had left. He undertook it because he felt an obligation to find the root causes of the disaster and to speak plainly to the public about his findings. He went to Washington and found what he had expected at the heart of the tragedy: a bureaucratic hierarchy with two groups of people, the engineers and the managers, who lived in separate worlds and did not communicate with each other. The engineers lived in the world of technical facts; the managers lived in the world of political dogmas.

    He asked members of both groups to tell him their estimates of the risk of disastrous failure in each Space Shuttle mission. The engineers estimated the risk to be of the order of one disaster in a hundred missions. The managers estimated the risk to be of the order of one disaster in a hundred thousand missions. The difference, a factor of a thousand between the two estimates, was never reconciled and never openly discussed. The managers were in charge of the operations and made the decisions to fly or not to fly, based on their own estimates of the risk. But the technical facts that Feynman uncovered proved that the managers were wrong and the engineers were right.
This is reminiscent of one of the shockers I took away from my recent reading of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago Volume 1: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, that thousands upon thousands of engineers were sent to the camps by the "managers" of the Soviet economy, accused as they were of the crime of "wrecking," which in reality meant being realistic about production quotas and whatnot.

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