University of Minnesota
Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics
Spring 2002 Seminar Series

A Fracture in the System

James R. Chiles

Author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology


The shocking breakup of the Challenger; the dark February morning when the Atlantic swallowed the giant drilling rig Ocean Ranger; the fiery PEPCON factory explosion in Nevada; a deadly, runaway police van in Minnesota: in his book Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology author James R. Chiles tracks the causes and consequences of dozens of technological catastrophes, showing how the battle between man and machine can escalate beyond manageable limits.

Surprisingly, the same root causes appear, across time and technology. The book narrates numerous examples where seemingly small human errors and mechanical malfunctions linked up in a "system fracture," comparable to the way in which small weaknesses in metal can join up under stress to cause a sudden fracture. Given that warnings of trouble preceded most disasters days or even weeks ahead, this pattern suggests that in the future, impending incidents are likely to offer chances for motivated, knowledgeable people to break that chain of circumstance. In this spirit, the book analyzes numerous near-misses that never made the news. That's because quick thinking, heroic gestures, and expert actions of a few individuals saved the lives of many, often just in time. Finally, the book shows how people in seemingly high-hazard occupations (like nitroglycerine manufacturing) have hammered out some useful principles about how to survive on the Machine Frontier.


James R. Chiles, 46, writes chiefly on technology and history. He has published 40 articles in national magazines since 1984 and is a regular contributor to Smithsonian and Air&Space. Of his 27 features for Smithsonian, four have been cover stories. Many of his articles have dealt with system malfunctions, engineering and safety discipline, including the 1965 New York City blackout, building design for earthquake resistance, the Challenger disaster, air traffic controller training, airplane manufacturing and airliner simulators. His writing on industrial jobs has taken him into tunnels deep under New York City, on a helicopter during maintenance of high-voltage power lines, on firefighter training sessions, on drilling rigs and on a broadcast tower under construction.

Chiles was born in Springfield, Missouri, in 1955. He graduated with honors from Harvard College (1977) and the University of Texas Law School (1981). He worked as a researcher in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Dallas, Texas, before taking a job as an environmental policy analyst for the State of Minnesota in 1989. He is married and lives with his wife and three sons in Minnesota.

Wednesday, February 27, 2002
EE/CSci 3-180
2:30-3:30 p.m.

Disability accomodations provided upon request.
Contact Kristal Belisle, Senior Secretary, 625-8000.