Friday, 23 September 2011

Disasters of divine origin and Engineering

Yesterday, on the train from King's Cross to Waverly, I read in History Today an interesting article about the other Great Fire of Rome (AD 192), second after that with Nero's infamous role in AD 64:



A newly rediscovered ancient letter by the great physician Galen offers a prime example of how fire was seen as a act of god against which humans could do little. These two excerpts serve as example:

"There was no massing of dark clouds, but a preliminary earth tremor was felt. There was no thunderstorm present when either a bolt of lightning struck, or a fire broke out as a result of the tremor. The entire Temple of Peace, the largest and most beautiful of all the buildings in the city, was burnt to the ground"
 "[Sudden weather changed to heavy rain] For this reason it was known that the disaster was indeed of divine origin. For people now believed that the fire was started, and stopped, by the will and power of the gods"

Unfortunately, this tradition permeated with time so deep into human culture that it is still possible to recognize it in many reactions to the fire problem. For example, see the recent reaction of the Governor of Texas who asked for praying to solve the extreme drought that now has led to extreme fire behaviour (Texan megafires). NOTE: I have nothing against praying. I pray some times, but not in profesional activities.

We teach better at engineering schools. The incoming generations of engineers are taught to solve the problems faced by society using the best tools available (eg, analitical skills, design, science, technology and creativity), and not to rely on divine intervention. In particular for fire safety engineers, they are taught to design to protect life and property against the detrimental effects of heat and smoke produced by accidental fires.