Oobleck and the Gulf Disaster

February 7, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Oobleck is not high-tech chemistry. The name comes from Dr. Seuss, and making the stuff is child’s play – mix cornflour and water – which is why grade-school kids are familiar with it. Also why YouTube has lots of videos of people running on water. (Mythbusters got in the act too.)

Now it turns out that Oobleck might have stopped the BP underwater gusher in the Gulf. Mud, the usual “top kill” substance, was useless because the flow of oil was so rapid. But oobleck’s “non-Newtonian” (Seussian?) properties might have done the trick. (Wired has the story here.)

Jonathan Katz, a physicist, apparently suggested oobleck to the Department of Energy team that was assembled three weeks into the disaster.
Katz did some quick math and saw that a half-cornstarch drilling mud would suppress the turbulence and sink in one coherent slug. Unfortunately, no one listened.
“I have no idea why they didn’t pay attention,” said Richard Garwin, a retired IBM physicist who was also part of the DOE-convened team.
In 1986, the mystery of the Challenger disaster stopped being mysterious and became instantly understandable when Richard Feynman dropped a rubber O-ring into a glass of ice water. This wasn’t rocket science. Or rather, it was rocket science, but it was the part that a third-grader could understand.

These weren’t failures of science (let’s assume that the oobleck theory is correct). Maybe they weren’t even failures of scientists. More likely they were failures of organization. We need to know more about how the structure and culture of organizations keeps some ideas from getting very far, or from getting in the door at all . . . until it’s too late.

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