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On the imperfect machine

POSTED: December 11, 2013 4:00 a.m.

The mood in the galley of the research ship was gloomy. Our grand experiment had failed and we were pounding our way through the rough seas of the Gulf of Mexico bound for New Orleans.

The search for oil in deep waters requires sending powerful sound waves down through the cold water then deep into the earth. Those sound waves reflect off different geologic structures and are recorded back on the surface. Because of the depths, understanding the returning sound waves was becoming more complex all the time.

We thought we had a solution. It was known as the Moose Gun.

The sound waves were generated by airguns. They are large metal cylinders that hold compressed air until it is released, creating a huge bubble of air in the water.

The Moose Gun was a massive single cylinder airgun the size of a school bus. It had large steel fins welded onto it that looked much like moose antlers. The fins directed the shape of the enormous air bubble making the sound waves cleaner.

Earlier that night we had lowered the Moose Gun down about a mile into the water for its first test. The first bubble looked good. The second pop of air not so much. With the third pop there was a strange reading and the crane cable went slack. The Moose Gun had exploded and its pieces sank to the ocean bottom.

Days after our return to the research center the team met with a second team that was experimenting with a different idea. Their solution was to use several dozen tiny airguns fixed together with a complicated array of cables and chains. The contraption looked like a baby crib mobile. Their machine also failed, having become entangled in its supporting web. Hopelessly tangled, the air guns ripped their machine to shreds.

There we all sat in a large conference room. The Moose Gun team on the right and the array guys on the left.

We argued for a full day about the benefits of our personal designs. We threw jabs at the other team. There was unending pettiness from both sides. We got nowhere.

Finally, key members from both sides realized that while we got nowhere, our outside competition might in fact be finding a solution. They might be winning the end game. We might well be left behind.

We remembered that we had a grand goal and that our individual perspectives had lost sight of that goal. Each side had good science behind their machines. Both sides had something to contribute. Compromise returned as part of the solution.

The good from the right side of the table joined with the good from the left side. The problems of all were noted, but it was the strengths of both designs that we pressed forward.

A new prototype emerged. Yet the most interesting thing was that there was no hatred anymore within the group. There was only hope and anticipation.

Some months later the research vessel again swayed across the ocean swells in the deep waters of the Gulf. The compromise air gun was lowered into the deep. Pop after pop, release after release it worked.

It was not a perfect signal, but it was a much better signal than we had ever achieved before. It was an imperfect machine that worked perfectly well for now.

One of the greatest cultural advisors of our times; Ann Landers, said that "a good marriage is not a gift. It is an achievement."

I think she also knew something about engineering deep water machines and perhaps politics as well.

 

 

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