Boeing 737 Max Grounded As Crash Investigation Continues
This week, air safety regulators grounded Boeing’s 737 Max 8 jets around the world in the wake of a deadly crash in Ethiopia. While the cause of the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 is still unknown, the behavior of the aircraft was strikingly similar to that of another 737 Max 8 flown by Lion Air which crashed last October. Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight, joins Ira to talk about what’s known so far about the Ethiopian Airlines crash, and the delicate interplay between technology and human behavior.
They’ll also talk about calls for a 5-year moratorium on human germline gene editing, evidence for an ancient massive solar storm, and the conflict between advanced cell phone technology and weather satellites in this week’s News Roundup.
Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll talk with some standout teens from this year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search. But, first, this week’s air safety regulators around the world grounded Boeing’s 737 Max 8 jets in the wake of a deadly crash in Ethiopia.
The cause of that crash is still unknown. But the behavior of the aircraft in its final minutes was strikingly similar to that of another 737 Max, which crashed last October in Indonesia. Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight, is with me to talk about that and other selected subjects in science this week. Welcome back, Maggie.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Hi, thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. So fill us in. What do investigators now know so far about this most recent crash?
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, we know one thing that it’s definitely a big deal to have two crashes of the same type of plane in close succession just two years after the model first flew. So to give you some context on that. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner which first flew in 2009 has never had a fatality, which is what’s drawing a lot of attention to this 737 Max. It matters a lot that it’s crashed twice in such close timing.
IRA FLATOW: And is this a problem with the plane or how it’s being flown?
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: So based on what we know about that Indonesia accident, it sounds like it might be a little bit of both, a chain reaction of problems. So the 737 Max was a redesign of an older airplane that was intended to be more fuel efficient. And part of how they did that was getting these different engines which were a little bit bigger.
So the designers put them further forward on the wing, and that has a tendency to destabilize the aircraft in certain situations. So then Boeing has this plane preloaded with software that automatically corrects the plane’s pitch when it needs to. But data from this previous crash last year suggests that sensors that tell the plane when it needs to turn that correction on could be malfunctioning.
And the ways that pilots are supposed to interact with that particular bit of autopiloting, it turns out to be pretty counterintuitive to the ways they’re used to flying. So you have this perfect storm of problems, and solutions, and everything klugded together in a way that just makes accidents more likely, maybe.
IRA FLATOW: So if the crashes are due to basically a software problem, how long might it take to fix it?
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: That I don’t know the answer to. I think it’s interesting. One of things I’ve been paying attention to with this, though, is the way that it’s tied into these bigger theories about how disasters happen. That sociologists have been looking at this idea called normal accidents for around 40 years, where you have these complex systems that then we try to make simpler. And we try to solve the problems that these complex systems create and end up creating new problems that we didn’t even think could happen.
IRA FLATOW: Unexpected consequences. All right, let’s move on to other news this week, calls for a five-year moratorium on a certain kind of gene editing. Tell us about what’s going on there.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, so 18 scientists, including two of the pioneer developers of the CRISPR gene editing technology, they published a statement this week calling for a five-year moratorium on using any gene editing to alter human sperm, eggs, and embryos. And obviously that’s part of a reaction to that work of the Chinese scientist He Jiankui who announced back in December that he’d been doing these secret experiments and had produced genetically edited babies.
But there’s been some pushback to this. And what’s interesting about it is that the pushback is based around the idea that, first off, this is a completely unenforceable mandate. There’s no central office of international science that can tell governments what to do. And it’s all creating a voluntary sign-on thing that then governments would have to pass laws about.
And second, a lot of governments already had laws on the books about this. So you have the whole situation in China. The Chinese government had already advised against it, so anything like this wouldn’t really stop someone else from doing the same kind of work that He was doing.
IRA FLATOW: This reminds me of the Asilomar conference back in 1975, where genetic engineering had just been born and the scientists were fearful something might crawl out. And they stopped their research to talk about it. Just like this conference, it seems. But nothing– and it was a voluntary thing also.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Right, exactly. And one of the things that it ends up coming down to is that we have all these different structures for regulating science on the international level. We have local laws. We have the power of financing. But a lot of the times what it comes down to is whether scientists can convince other scientists that something is wrong and that they should feel bad about doing it, peer pressure essentially.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I get it. It’s true. Let’s move way back into time and where there was research out this week about an ancient solar storm.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, new evidence that suggests a massive wave of radiation from the Sun crashed into the Earth around 660 BC. It would be one of the strongest solar storms we’ve ever found evidence of. So these are things that happen periodically. They’re just natural processes associated with shifting magnetic field on the Sun.
You can think of it as a Sun burp. And when they happen, you get these waves of charged particles that hurdle through space. And sometimes they have enough energy behind them that they can get through the Earth’s own magnetic field. So that can be a big deal to us here now because these waves of solar radiation, they can damage satellites. They’re dangerous for astronauts.
They can even mess with technological infrastructure here on the ground. And we don’t know how common they are. So scientists are looking for evidence in ice cores, in this case, also in tree rings of these older solar storms that happened so we can get a better idea of how common this is and how much we need to worry.
IRA FLATOW: Finally, I want to get into a topic that’s closer to home. And I’m talking about really closer– toilet paper. I read this. The soft versions of toilet paper are destroying forests in Canada.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yes, yes. Your delicate rear end is responsible for natural degradation all over the world. The National Resources Defense Council had released a paper this week that found that the US uses more toilet paper per capita than any other country. So 4% of the world’s population, and we account for 20% of toilet paper consumption.
And most of that is virgin paper not recycled, which means this huge impact on forests. But then you have the whole deal where recycled toilet paper is not the soft, cushy, comfy stuff. So it’s really hard to convince consumers that that’s what they want. You’ve got this conflict there between– I guess– supply and demand?
IRA FLATOW: There certainly is a bacteria or a yeast somewhere that could chew it up a little better and use the recycled stuff, you know? Thank you, thank you, Maggie. Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science reporter for FiveThirtyEight.