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Maths and Science Lessons from the School of Life

Maths and Science Lessons from the School of Life

We have often found that lessons are learnt better when vivid stories are told. Theory and practice are important, but we have always been a big advocate of using stories to bring to life how a concept relates to real life.

Here are some real-life incidents that show what can go wrong if our scientists and engineers make mistakes in their fields. In some cases, a PR nightmare ensues, and in other cases, it can lead to more severe consequences.

1) Fat trains - a comedy of measurements

In 2014, SNCF, France’s national railway company spent 15 billion euros on ordering 2000 new trains. They later discovered that the trains were too wide for over 1300 stations’ platforms and then had to spend huge sums of money to reconfigure over 1200 platforms to accommodate the new trains.

To add insult to injury, in 2015, SNCF discovered the trains were too tall to use the Italian tunnels along the Riviera coastline route. As a result, passengers had to transfer to a smaller train at the French/Italian border.

SNCF blamed the error on the national rail operator RFF who they said had supplied them with the wrong dimensions for the stations. It was claimed that RFF measured a small number of platforms built less than 35 years ago, overlooking the fact that many of France's regional platforms were built more than 55 years ago when trains were a little slimmer.

2) Wait – which ruler are we using now?

Errors caused by using different units of measurement are not confined to the industrial era either. In 1628, crowds in Stockholm, Sweden watched in horror as a new warship, Vasa, sank less than a mile into her maiden voyage, with the death of dozens on board.

Armed with 64 bronze cannons, it was considered by some to be the most powerful warship in the world, yet a light gust of wind caused the Vasa to heel over on its side and sink. Experts who have studied it since it was raised in 1961 say it is asymmetrical, being thicker on the port side than the starboard side.

One reason for this could be that the workmen were using different systems of measurement. Archaeologists have found four rulers used by the workmen who built the ship. Two were calibrated in Swedish feet, which had 12 inches, while the other two measured Amsterdam feet, which had 11 inches!

3) The lost, and then found Covid-19 cases

In the summer of 2020, it was discovered that nearly 16,000 positive COVID-19 tests were omitted from the UK’s official records through what was described as an “IT” glitch that wasn’t detected for over a week.

It then transpired that this IT glitch was caused by using an old Excel spreadsheet template format which dates back to 1987. This computer file format is limited to under 66,000 rows of data whereas newer Excel formats can hold over one million rows of data.

It seems incredible that all those tests were omitted from templates that had become full when an Excel update costing less than £100 would have resolved the issue.

4) An expensive science project goes down in flames

NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) was designed to study Mars from orbit and was launched in December 1998. NASA planned for MCO to arrive in orbit at the same time as another of its probes (the Mars Polar Lander) to conduct simultaneous investigations of Mars’ atmosphere, climate and surface.

Scientists hoped that the information provided by the probes would aid in reconstructing Mars’ climatic history and provide evidence of buried water reserves. The MCO satellite was also designed to serve as a communications relay for the Mars Polar Lander and after its two year mapping mission ended in 2001, MCO would have acted as a communications relay for future NASA missions to Mars.

However, in September 1999, the $125m probe came too close to Mars as it tried to manoeuvre into orbit and disintegrated due to atmospheric stresses. This was because the Nasa team used metric units while a contractor used imperial units. Commands from Earth were being sent in imperial units (in this case, pound-seconds) without being converted into the metric standard (Newton-seconds). This caused the navigational error that led the orbiter to miss its intended orbit and disintegrate in Mars’ atmosphere instead.

As we can see from the stories above, miscalculations and lack of attention to details have had devastating impacts on huge STEM projects from all eras.

So students, the next time you are asked to re-check your work when doing that Maths or Science paper, think of it as low stakes practice in a safe environment, so that when you are in a position of real responsibility, you are able to help avoid errors costing millions!