Tag Archives: disaster

A Flight to Remember


What happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370? That is the question that for a month has been asked again and again by relatives, authorities and not least the media. Why?

Because the disappearance of a modern passenger jet with 239 people aboard it is more than a tragedy, more than a disaster. It questions some of our most fundamental understandings of how the world is supposed to work.

The great scientific revolution of the 16th and the 17th centuries and the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th provided Man with much insight into the inner workings of Nature. This enabled us to innovate and industrialize, especially in Europe and the USA, in the 19th century to such a degree that we came to think that Man had conquered Nature with technology.

Then came the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912. Was this the nemesis after Man’s hubris? A reminder from Nature that even that largest ship in the world, claimed by some to be unsinkable, was no match for a single iceberg in the North Atlantic? Even after a century, the Titanic is still one of the best known events in the history of disasters. It was, as Walter Lord chose as the title of his account, truly a “night to remember“.

If the 19th century had been the Age of Technology, and the 20th century was the Age of Information, the 21st century so far is the Age of Surveillance. The Internet, social media, CCTV, satellites, drones and smartphones with cameras and GPS connects everything in a transparent grid governed by dark forces deep within covert organizations. The NSA is listening in on our conversations, Facebook knows our wants and wishes better than ourselves, and Google reads our mail. There are no secrets anymore.

Then how could MH370 vanish without a trace? Newton taught us that every effect must have a cause, and that there is a linear relationship between the two. The scientists of the Enlightenment dreamt of predicting everything from full knowledge of the present. In the 19th century Man beat nature – and then Nature struck back. And just when we thought that all privacy had been lost, that everything was connected, this happened.

MH370 is Schrödinger’s Cat for real – the cat that is dead and not-dead at the same time, at not until we open the box will it collapse into one of the two states. We are dealing with a missing cause with no effect, another sign that Man by far is not up to the fight with Nature, a mystery that works contrary to what we thought was possible.

The fragile understandings of our world have been shaken by the mere disappearance of a symbol of control. And while we struggle with the uncertainties of the 21st century we are entertained by conspiracy theories providing us with cheap explanations in the absence of deeper meaning.

This will be a Flight to Remember for the rest of the century.

Do you believe?

On reading Ben Sherwood’s excellent “The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life” I stumbled across the interesting notion that religious people seem to have an edge over non-believers in life-threatening situations. Sherwood argues that there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference between followers of Christianity, Islam, or other religions – the basic believe in something that is bigger than yourself is what gives you just that extra 10 pct. of will to live when you’re caught under the rubble or find yourself in the middle of a freezing ocean in a small life raft.

In disaster studies the ability of a social system or an individual to withstand the forces of nature, manmade hazards etc. is called “resilience”, and religion/life philosophy plays a vital role in how resilient you are. But, according to Sherwood, being TOO religious is just as bad as having no God at all in a disaster situation. Deeply religious people tend to put their lives in the hands of God when everything falls apart, and while this strategy may be appropriate and comforting when fighting terminal cancer, it is not optimal when caught inside a burning building or onboard a sinking ship. Sherwood states that “somewhat religious” people (e.g. those who only go to church at Christmas but still believe in God and try to live more or less in accordance with their faith) in fact have a small head start when it comes to survivability: they feel that “someone” is watching over them and that everything in some way makes sense even if it seems like there is no hope right now – while at the same time they do stay in command and actively pursues a positive outcome.

As the old saying goes: “There are no atheists in the trenches.” But there shouldn’t be any fundamentalists in disasters, either.