Why can't scientists and engineers step in and stop the oil from leaking into the Gulf of Mexico? After all, we see resolution of similar challenges take place in minutes or at worst, overnight, on tv and in movies every day.
ASU professor Lawrence Krauss raises this point in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal today. He notes that "Alas, in the real world it doesn't work that way. The progress of science more often occurs by baby steps than giant leaps. The road from basic knowledge to successful technology is a long and winding one, usually taking decades, not weeks or months."
What seems increasingly clear is that while we have developed remarkable technology for drilling in ultradeep offshore environments, the safety technology has not been kept abreast. And surprisingly, the oil clean up techniques seem to be much more ad hoc and experimental than one would expect. [right, BP relief well diagram]
Lawrence writes, "This means recognizing in advance not only that the Gulf disaster was possible but that something like it was inevitable. Only with this mind-set can we be prepared to do the sensible thing: Conduct the necessary research on the physics and geology of deep ocean processes in advance so that engineers will not be flying blind if and when a disaster eventually occurs."
He concludes "The economic costs associated with the next Gulf disaster, or New Orleans flood, or nuclear terrorist event will far outweigh the investment that might be made in advance to learn how to minimize the risks and to quickly and appropriately respond to problems."
[disclosure: I worked for BP for a couple years in the mid-80s in Texas, as a result of SOHIO being taken over by them. ]