ALTOM: Here are some technology glitches to put behind us in 2010

December 19, 2009

Happy holidays to everyone, and time once again for an annual roundup of this year’s worst technological gaffes, disasters and catastrophes. This is my Christmas gift to you. If you’re not involved in one of these massive failures, you can take solace in the much smaller problems you have every day. You’re welcome.

This year, I’ll focus on just two. The first is perhaps the world’s most expensive teething pain, while the second has its roots in 1936.

Whenever technology is untried, problems become a way of life for the first owners. Some gadgetry is so specialized that there’s no way to iron out the miscues in later design, because there aren’t going to be any.

An example is the Hubble Space Telescope, which has revolutionized astronomy, but was originally almost a $2.5 billion bust. Only after the satellite reached orbit in 1990 was it realized that its reflecting mirror was incorrectly ground, and that the telescope would be only a little more effective than a much cheaper ground-based one. The 8-foot-wide mirror had been ground too flat at the edges by 2.2 microns, or 0.00008 inch. A shuttle mission years later fixed the Hubble and now it’s sending back the kind of pictures astronomers salivated for back before its launch in 1990.

An even worse embarrassment awaited the new Large Hadron Collider last year, built hundreds of feet beneath Switzerland and France by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. It is, by any measurement, one of mankind’s biggest projects. Its $9 billion price tag paid for a 12-foot-wide tunnel 17 miles in diameter that holds the machinery for firing protons along the tunnels, and 96 tons of liquid helium cooling hundreds of powerful magnets at just shy of the temperature of outer space to control where the protons go.

It was designed, built and tended for 15 years by an estimated 10,000 scientists and engineers from more than 100 nations, and with the collaboration of hundreds of universities and laboratories worldwide. Its startup was, as you might imagine, eagerly anticipated. On Sept. 10, 2008, scientists managed to get protons firing around the tunnel.

Nine days later, an electrical failure caused 100 of the collider’s large magnets to malfunction, which destroyed 50 of the magnets, lost 6 tons of super-cold liquid helium right into the tunnel, and resulted in a year of downtime while the accident was investigated and the damage repaired to the tune of more than $20 million. The next time protons went through the tunnel was in November of this year. CERN is slowly ramping up to full power, watching carefully for any more catastrophes.

Just before CERN restarted the collider, an unrelated but equally thrilling and longer-developing failure took place 5,600 miles to the west, between Oakland and San Francisco. The Bay Bridge (officially the “James ‘Sunny Jim’ Rolph Bridge”) had to be shut down when repairs failed and pieces of it rained down on the roadway. The bridge carries about a quarter-million vehicles every day on its two decks. It’s one of the two busiest bridges in the country; New York’s George Washington Bridge handles a slightly higher volume.

When it breaks and has to be closed, it’s hard to imagine a more public calamity. Yet, it’s happened not once, but several times. As far back as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when part of the upper deck crashed down onto the lower one, it was realized that the 1936-era Bay Bridge wasn’t going to withstand another temblor, and plans were initiated to retrofit the bridge. On Labor Day 2009, engineers found a crack in a vital part of the bridge known as an “eyebar.” A patch was quickly fabricated and installed, minimizing closure time.

Just a month later, on Oct. 27, the repair failed spectacularly, with huge pieces of steel dropping directly onto the upper deck motorway and forcing closure of the bridge once again. The city’s other transportation options, the subway (BART) and ferry service, had to step up to absorb the traffic. The bridge reopened Nov. 2, although without all the repairs in place. Those will take until the end of December. The repairs cost $14 million.

Falling repair debris isn’t the only hazard commuters have to face. Part of the original retrofit was to build a sweeping S-shaped bridge detour to carry traffic around the construction site. It’s slowed traffic quite a bit and drivers aren’t always careful to lower their speeds going into it. On Nov. 10, a trucker hauling pears tried to negotiate the curve at too high a speed, crashed through a low guardrail, and plunged 200 feet to Yerba Buena Island below, killing the driver and demolishing the truck and guardrail.

Happy holidays, and remember that no matter how tough your own problems, they could always be worse.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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