Learning why things go wrong

SUN JOURNAL

Failure: Analyzing life's errors and what causes them is a growing business, with an eye to preventing damage and loss of life.

March 16, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

MENLO PARK, Calif. - As a boy, Patrick Pizzo obsessed over failures. Not his own, but mishaps and miscues he saw around him. When a spoke on his bicycle wheel broke, he wanted to know why.

In the late 1960s, when an Air Force T-28 training plane mysteriously crashed into Mobile Bay off the Alabama coast, Pizzo, by then an engineer, once again set out to find out why. Finding an answer involved more than just satisfying his curiosity.

"Lives depended on it," says Pizzo, who spent 20 years teaching engineering students at San Jose State University about failure analysis - or, as the glass-is-half-full crowd says, reliability physics.

Trying to understand why things go wrong is a basic human impulse, one that has informed mythology, philosophy and religion. There's now even an online magazine, Failure, devoted to examining failure and its causes from all sorts of angles.

And failure analysis has generated a vast industry of scientists who travel to disaster scenes in hope of pinpointing a cause, preventing a recurrence and, if need be, convincing a jury.

Among those reaping success from the fields of failure is Exponent Inc., headquartered along congested Highway 101 in Silicon Valley. The firm has analyzed disasters ranging from large-scale (the Oklahoma City bombing and the Kobe, Japan, earthquake in 1995) to small-scale (a fatal California house fire caused by a malfunctioning air conditioner and a deadly hot-tub scalding in Berkeley, Calif.).

In front of its headquarters building stands a curved metal sculpture, in blue. It is part of a radio tower that collapsed in Missouri, killing several people. One interpretation: Disaster is beautiful. It's also lucrative: Last year, the publicly traded company had net income of $7.4 million on gross revenue of $101.6 million.

"Society's intolerance for anything that goes wrong is increasing faster than accident rates are declining," says Michael R. Gaulke, Exponent's president and chief executive officer. "So, is this is a good business? Yes."

A new study by LRP Publications found that the median jury award to consumers suing over defective products has ballooned in recent years. In 1998, the median award was $1.26 million; a year later it had risen to $1.81 million, an increase of nearly 50 percent.

The attempt to capitalize on failure is not limited to the courtroom and the laboratory. A number of books have told of one or another disaster in the style of "The Perfect Storm," from destruction-by-hurricane to miraculous rescues from mountaintops.

And then there's Failure magazine, which debuted last summer.

"People are just fascinated by the subject," says the editor, Jason Zasky. "Any media outlet covers the subject of failure to one extent or another. What do we do when we pick up a magazine or newspaper? We gravitate to failure."

But the interest in understanding failure has a downside, according to Donna Fiedler, an assistant professor of social work at La Salle University in Philadelphia and an expert in treating trauma victims.

"With so much scientific expertise, we always think there is an answer," she says. "We can see the furor when there's not."

As an example, she cites the TWA Flight 800 crash in 1996. Investigators believe an electrical short caused the midair explosion and dismiss theories of a missile attack or radio interference as bunk, but there has not been a crystal-clear explanation.

That things will go wrong is a given. As Zasky says, "Failure is an inevitable life experience. We like to say it's as inevitable as death and taxes." His magazine offers such features such as "This Day in Failure" - "February 6, 1958: Eight members of the Manchester United football squad are among 23 people killed when the team's plane crashes upon takeoff from Munich, Germany" - and "Failure of the Year," which in 2000 went to the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Zasky says he hopes to do more than titillate or dole out trite, uplifting articles that portray failure as a common ingredient in success. He's aiming to challenge people's view of failure by highlighting that few failures are absolute and all need to be understood in context.

For example, he pointed out that country music legend Garth Brooks sold about 2 million copies of the album, "Garth Brooks In ... The Life of Chris Gaines." That would be considered a roaring success for many singers. But because several Brooks albums have sold more than 10 million copies ("No Fences" sold 16 million), one could argue it was a failure of sorts.

One story you won't read at Failure is the tale of Zasky's greatest personal failure. He says he hasn't had any whoppers, unless you count the demise of Musician magazine, where he was managing editor. "I'm not sure why people would expect I would have some kind of failure in my life," he says. "I can't point to anything."

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