In the world of television news the phrase "if it bleeds, it leads" determines which of the days news items are most important. Loss of life and natural calamity are deemed more newsworthy because the human element within the story – these things could have happened to us – draw us into their seductive thrall. Even popular entertainment feeds our attraction to peril with fictitious disasters that echo those we have encountered before.
In the early days of these disaster the question on everyone's mind, right after "What just happened?" is "What went wrong?" These questions are as much about our natural curiosities as they are about learning what we can and perhaps avoiding them in the future. Popular Mechanics' What Went Wrong turns the questions into a collection of explanations for some of the worst man-made and natural disasters of the last 100 years.
Books like this have existed for decades – I read a similar book put out by Reader's Digest back in the day – but what I like about this one is its approach to what it calls "disaster forensics," bringing scientific explanations to everything from classic disasters like the 1901 San Francisco earthquake and the 1956 sinking of the Andrea Doria to more modern events like Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Each of these disasters is presented with a narrative leading up to the event followed by its forensic explanation about what happened. Divided into two parts, "Nature's Fury" and "Man's Error," events are grouped by type: volcanoes, snow and ice, aviation, shipwrecks, and so on. Each chapter includes illustrated reconstructions of events and concludes with Survival Tips that should mitigate the "rubbernecking" feel of pouring over epic disasters that, in every case, resulted in the loss of human life. Well-illustrated, clearly explained, the disasters listed offer a wide collection of scientific explanations that highlight human error, miscalculation, and the unusual natural phenomena of our everyday lives.
I will admit, a part of me momentarily questioned highlighting this book, but I almost instantly realized that earlier this week I had been monitoring the approach of asteroid 2012 DA14 and doing the occasional web search for what the result of an impact would mean if the NASA scientists had miscalculated. I think it is a natural curiosity to want to know what might happen and what could happen and, for past events, a question this book answers, what went wrong.
What Went Wrong: Investigating the Worst Man-Made and Natural Disasters
by William Hayes
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