Where Progress Comes From and How We Can Create More of It

As I read the introduction to Stephen Johnson’s new book, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, 2012 I find myself thinking about the interconnectedness of today’s outcomes to the work of many in the years past.  In the process of setting up his book, Johnson retells about the story of the Miracle on the Hudson which is the story of captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who brilliantly navigated his plane in to the Hudson River with great poise under unthinkable pressure.

The point that Johnson makes is that “the plane survived because a dense network of human intelligence have built a plane designed to withstand it exactly this kind of failure. It was an individual triumph, to be sure, but it was also, crucially, a triumph of collectively shared ideas, corporate innovation, state-funded research, and government regulation.”

He goes on to write, “To ignore those elements in telling the story of the Miracle on the Hudson is not to neglect part of the narrative for dramatic effect.  It is to fundamentally misunderstand where progress comes from and how we can create more of it.”

I’m thinking about this because the work of education needs to be broad and deep. We must nurture interdependent thinking.  The world of technological innovation in science, industry, production and in education needs to also be broad and deep.

Progress doesn’t come from individual narrow and superficial work.

So, as we in schools think about what role technology should play in are classrooms and curriculums – we all will be well served, to also think broadly and deeply.  We will also be correct to help students to learn and practice to work collaboratively and interdependently.  Because, there will be many more miracles like the one on the Hudson which can and will only happen because of all of the learning and thinking that transpired well before the miracle occurred.

Here are more details that Johnson shared about the work that went on many years prior to this event that allowed the captain to land the plane in the Hudson.

“The phrase lucky break – like the whole promise of the miracle on the Hudson – distorts the true circumstances of the U.S. Airways landing. We need to better phrase, something that conveys the idea of an event that seems lucky, but actually resulted from years of deliberate preparation and planning. This was not a stroke of good fortune.  It was a stroke of good foresight.

The any attempt to explain that the confluence of events that came together to allow all flight 1549 to land safely in the Hudson has to begin with the chicken gun.

The threat posed by and bird-impact strikes to aircraft dates back to the very beginning of flight.  The primary vulnerability in a modern commercial jet lies in birds being ingested by the jet engine and, wreaking enough internal damage that the engine itself fails. The engine can simply flame out or it can shatter, sending debris back into the fuselage potentially destroying the plane in a matter of seconds.

Today’s jet engines are there for rigorously tested to ensure that they can withstand significant bird impact without catastrophic failure. At Arnold Air Force Base in Tennessee, a team of scientists and engineers use high pressure helium gas to launch chicken carcasses at high velocity into spinning jet engines. Every make of engine that powers a commercial jet aircraft in the United States has passed the chicken gun test.

The chicken gun, it should be noted, is an exemplary case of governmental regulation. Those dead birds been shot out of the pneumatic cannon are Your Tax Dollars at Work.  For the passengers flying on U.S. Airways 1549, those tax dollars turned out to be very well spent.

In fact, the advance planning of the chicken gun was so effective that the jet core of the left engines continued to spin at near maximum speed  – not enough to grant Sullenberger the thrust needed to return to LaGuardia, but enough so that the planes electronics and hydraulic systems functioned for the duration of the flight.

The persistence of the electronics system, In turn, set up a flight 1549’s second stroke of foresight: the planes legendary fly-by-wire system remained online Sullenberger steered his wounded craft toward the river.

The history of the fly-by-wire dates back to 1972, when a modified F -8 Crusader took off from the Dryden Flight Research Center on the edge of the Mojave Desert.  The brainchild of NASA engineers, the fly-by-wire system used digital computers and other modern electronic systems to relay control information from the pilot to the plane.  Because computers were involved, it became easier to provide assistance to the pilot in real time, even if the autopilot was disengaged, preventing stalls, or stabilizing the plane during turbulence.

So when Sullenberger was at the controls and collided with a flock of Canadian geese his left engine was still able to keep the electronics running.  His courageous descent into the Hudson was deftly assisted by a silent partner:  a computer embodied with the collective intelligence of years of research and planning. This means that Sullenberger was in command of the aircraft as he steered it toward the Hudson, but the fly-by-wire system was silently working alongside him throughout, setting the boundaries or optimal targets for his actions.

The extraordinary landing was a kind of a duet between a single human being at the helm of the aircraft and the embedded knowledge of the thousands of human beings that had collaborated over the years to build the fly-by-wire technology.   Pages xvii to xx of the Introduction to Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age by Steven Johnson

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