The Right Man in the Right Place at the Right Time

The other night I was watching The Poseidon Adventure with my wife. You know, it’s that movie where a luxury cruiseship gets hit by a rouge wave and flips upside down.

Defying captain’s orders, a band of hardy adventurers make their way to the bottom of the capsized ship to reach safety. At one point, the team is forced to ask a young boy to reach through a vent and unscrew a bolt. He is successful, but only because his fingers are small enough fingers to fit through the vent. My wife’s response to this was…”They’re lucky they had the boy with them”. But of course they were. It’s America, the home of the system that puts the right man (or person, in this case) in the right place just when they’re needed.

I first realized this about America in 1988 while I was flying back to school during the Christmas Break. I was reading the The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancey. It’s ideal for airplane travel. You can skip 200 pages and not miss a beat in the plot. At the end of the novel, Arab terrorists have detonated a nuclear device murdering the president of the United States, and the vice-president is on the verge of launching a retaliatory nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It’s then that CIA analyst Jack Ryan, in the words of the source of all things true,

The crisis is averted when Jack Ryan, after receiving forensic evidence that the bomb originates from the U.S., gains access to the Hot Line and manages to defuse the situation by communicating directly with the Soviet president and helping to engineer a stand-down in Berlin.

But what is this mysterious “forensic evidence” that Mr. Ryan produces? It is the radioactive signature of the plutonium used in the bomb exploded at the president’s assassination. And how is this arcane evidence interpreted to gain access to the Hot Line? As it turns out, the Marine officer guarding the access to the phone has a graduate degree in nuclear physics and by chance did his graduate work at the very same reactor where this plutonium came from. With this highly specialized knowledge, he is able to tell that the plutonium in this particular bomb was American and not Soviet.

Amazing? Not in the slightest. In the world of Tom Clancey, there are highly competent scientists and engineers everywhere. The Soviets are in no sense devoid of talent; Clancey is clear on that. The difference is that, in their command economy, scientist and engineers are not where they want to be. As a result, while there is technical competence, it is never the the person who should be there when they are needed.

Now the significance of this was not lost on me. As it turned, during 1987-8, I ate lunch almost every day with the graduate students in the Physics Department. By one of those Tom Clancey flucks of luck, my high school Physics partner had done an undergraduate degree in Engineering-Physics and then gone on to do a PhD in nuclear physics at the very same school as I. So it was that I ate lunch with him and his classmates almost every day. After reading how the marvels of nuclear physics had saved the world, I asked them about the reality of this. The verdict was that none of them would be able to do such a thing, ever my friend who had written programs that describe nuclear explosions. It seems this knowledge was far too distant even for these doctoral candidates.

I can understand. Afterall, we are Canadians and the threat of nuclear war far away even for our military. But then, really, isn’t all this just what you would expect in the system that puts the right man (or person) in the right place at the right time? And that’s what made America great.

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