One derivative of Murphy’s Law is: If it can go wrong it will go wrong, usually at the most inconvenient moment!
This post may be old news to many European’s but in November 2009, the 27-kilometer (16.8 mile) Large Hadron Collider (LHC), buried under fields on the French/Swiss border, suffered serious overheating in several sections after a small piece of baguette landed in a piece of equipment above the accelerator ring. Dr Mike Lamont, the LHC’s Machine Coordinator, said that “a bit of baguette”, believed to have been dropped by a passing bird (other sources suggest a malicious pigeon), caused the superconducting magnets to heat up from 1.9 Kelvin (-271.1C) to around 8 Kelvin (-265C), close to the level where they stop superconducting.
In theory, had the LHC been fully operational, this could cause a catastrophic breakdown similar to the one that occurred shortly after it was first switched on. Fortunately, the machine has several fail-safes which would have shut it down before the temperature rose too high.
Given the total cost of the project to build and commission the accelerator is of the order of 4.6 billion Swiss francs (approx. $4400M, €3100M, or £2800M as of Jan 2010) with an overall budget of 9 billion US dollars (approx. €6300M or £5600M as of Jan 2010), making the LHC is the most expensive scientific experiment in human history. Politicians are probably asking how a bungling bird could target a critical part of the machine with a small piece of bread and shut the whole system down?
A more realistic question for project practitioners is how could design engineers and risk managers be expected to foresee this type of problem? Failure Mode Analysis (FMA) may help but I can just see the reaction to someone in a risk workshop hypothesising that a bird would fly over the machine and drop its dinner precisely on target to cause the maximum damage. Theoretically possible, but hardly plausible would be a polite reaction……until after it happened.
One of the messages from books like ‘The Black Swan’ and from complexity theory is the future is inherently unpredictable. This is probably as good an example of a ‘Black Swan’ as any I’ve heard of.
For more on the LHC see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Hadron_Collider