How MIT Could Help With A Different Approach to the BP Gulf Crisis

Do you remember the “Let’s Build a Filter” scene from Apollo 13?  It remains – at least in my mind – one of the most heroic engineering scenes in the movies.  The one minute segment with the meat of the scene follows:

Several times over the past week the BP Gulf Crisis has come up in conversation.  The conversations have started in different places (politics, environment, leadership) but in each case quickly cycled toward the concept that the people involved need to try something different.  Now, there might be plenty of orthogonal thinking going on in lots of places around the crisis, but I kept thinking about the scene from Apollo 13 whenever we got to this point.

I’ve always felt that MIT undergraduates represent the smartest and most creative independent thinkers on the planet.  My friends at Caltech and Stanford will immediately come to defense of their colleagues and I’ll acknowledge that they are also extremely smart, but I’ve always thought the combination of MIT raw material with the four year undergraduate curriculum creates a unique type of thought process.

It’s summertime and classes are out.  It would take a day to identify the top two juniors and seniors from each department.  Why not immediately constitute a team of 25 amazing students, give them access to 100% of the data surrounding the crisis, show them the above movie clip, and tell them to come up with a solution to the problem.  Pay them each $25k for the rest of the summer – this is tiny compared to the amount of money being spent daily on the outside consultants working on solving the problem.

Then, open source all of their thinking.  Have them put their ideas on the web as they evolve.  Get anyone involved who wants to try to help solve the problem.  MIT has long been a leader in using the web for education – most recently with MIT Open Courseware.  MIT and BP already have a longstanding relationship – let’s take it up a level.

If nothing else, this will rally a bunch of smart people to engage in understanding and trying to help with the problem.  In the upside case, there is a small chance that it can come up with a solution to the problem.  And it will have the added benefit of inspiring a new generation of engineers to go after doing heroic things.

  • Curmudgeonly Troll
  • Brad,

    Nice link to the movie – Here is a post I did about a month ago based on a conversation and book by a couple of MIT Engineers – it has a great string on comments on it. "What Would a Citizen Engineer Do? The Gulf Coast Oil Spill" –

    Don't miss the computerworld article – "BP Fails to exploit Web 2.0 potential –

    It's good to be an Engineer!


  • Bill Mosby

    From what we've seen so far, the part that goes "give them access to 100 percent of the data" might be a bit problematic. BP seems to be treating that data as something like a trade secret as much as it possibly can.

    • So it's a two part exam, part A being "Find out the necessary information." With a few ethically creative CS majors, they might be able to grant themselves access to 100 percent of the data…

  • Totally agreed. Someone in BP was able to hear, review, test, and scale this technology The COO is quoted in the article, though I imagine there's a team here. There are also several other research groups and potential access points mentioned.

    Six degrees of Kevin Costner, anyone?

  • Engineering efforts to date are documented at NYT –
    BP should consider systematic, managed crowdsourcing (or some form of CrowdEngineering) rather than the black hole "suggestion" box approach.

  • Great idea, but why not take advantage of the rivalry between the schools? Do exactly what you say, but do it times 5: MIT, Caltech, Stanford, a military school and a team of engineering students from junior colleges, or whatever. Just something so that more people from diverse backgrounds get to contribute in ways that will help all the others.

    It's funny that you bring that scene up. I think I commented on that scene on your blog just a few weeks ago. We should have a "13" film festival. (But no Friday the 13ths.)

    Lastly, I just blogged about how people are expecting a political solution to the oil spill, and that's just plain silly:
    The good news, however, is that the spill won't create a water problem.

  • Good idea. Here is an embellishment:

    Prepare for future disaster situations by prepping teams (MIT, Caltech, etc.) in an XPrize or Darpa like contest. Fund it as you suggest with enough to attract the teams. Its a no-brainer to invest $1M for a few teams of this caliber and competitiveness against a $n billion problem. Winner gets a prize. When a disaster hits activate the teams, they pick their appropriate players and start the game. These minds yearn for this kind of challenge. (Remember how far and fast the "autonomous vehicle" technology went with the "game/prize" vs. the old school government contracts?) I don't see a downside.

    We should use this earnest, energetic brain pool as a societal resource. We all win.

    (Full disclosure: I am historically bound to believe that the MIT team would usually win 😉


    • Frances

      I just went to the TEDx OilSpill in Washington DC yesterday and XPrize announced that they are in the work to put together a contest for "Cleaning up the Spill". It will most definitely be a great opportunity for young smart minds to come up with innovative solutions.

      However, the access to data is always problematic – XPrize did mention that it will be hard for their board of experts to determine who the winner is if BP continues to treat data as trade secrets.

  • David L

    Having just finished reading "Start-Up Nation," it strikes me that your suggested approach is likely how Israelis would have reacted to this sort of crisis. My sense, though, is that we in the U.S. have just the wrong combination of macho "I can handle this" attitude and streamlined, regimented corporate decision-making protocols. If this were a market-based problem, anyone with a good idea could start a company to tackle it. However, there is only one physical plot of open water directly above the sunken rig, and BP is on it.

  • Hate to burst your bubble brad, but I'm pretty sure a majority of those engineers in the room were University of Texas Engineers, not MITers. Of course since I'm alum to both, I'm not too put out by your inference!

    But the Texas aerospace engineer in me had to point this out! Go Horns Go!

    • I accept that the dudes in the movies were UT Engineers. Actually, they were probably movie stars and were just good at looking nerdy and reading their lines.

  • There's actually a question being asked: is the leak un-pluggable? Specifically, has the field of cracks under the sea floor been so opened, that the efforts to actually close off one hole drove the other holes even larger?

    Also, it seems like there's some future forward value in figuring out how to get usable oil out of the water.

  • Darby Vernon

    What they need to do is get the Soviet Russians to claim that they can do it first.

    Good idea. I've often wondered why nobody's posted a reward for engineers. "Solve our problem, win $500,000." Maybe it's just those BP workers not wanting to be upstaged by undergraduates.

    • Bill Mosby

      Several people have noted that the Soviets had an 80 percent success rate in killing runaway gas wells using underground nuclear explosions. So there's that option, I suppose.

  • Paraic Hegarty

    I believe BP has already turned down access to 900+ ideas sourced through Innocentive.

  • "I've always felt that MIT undergraduates represent the smartest and most creative independent thinkers on the planet."

    If one's going to use higher ed institution affiliation as proxy for quality, I think it's way safer to use grad school affiliation, not undergrad. Undergrad affiliation is hit or miss — lots of 16 and 17 year olds game the system but aren't high quality. Grad school affiliation — masters, MBA, PhD, etc. — in my experience is more reliable, plus it's a measurement of quality of someone in early adulthood as opposed to when they were a teenager — a more complete picture.

    • In general, I agree with you but I think MIT is a special case. Your hypothesis is exactly the example of this. At most top tier undergraduate schools there is a wide variety / range of intelligence. In addition, in many cases it gets watered down by other motivations of the institution such as athletics. In my experience, this is not the case at MIT. Almost all of the undergrads are above a very high intellectual bar. They make have weaknesses in other areas (for example, the MIT football team has never done particularly well, even when playing against Jr. High teams from West Texas), but the intellectual horsepower of the undergrads (e.g. raw material) is consistently very very high.

      • "Raw material" can mean different things.

        If I think about my MIT undergrad friends right now, there are definitely problems where I think they would be unusually effective, and problems where I wouldn't think of them ahead of anyone else in an elite group. (I am less familiar with the school than you but I do know a few current students so I have some sense.)

        Take this oil spill example. If the task were, "Figure out an engineering solution to blah blah blah this machine error" I would say, "MIT undergrads, great!" If the task were, "Figure out why the different functions of government did not coordinate well enough and figure out why the politics in Washington prevent a coordinated response" I would say there are other casts of minds perhaps better suited or equally suited to this problem.

        I'm not so naive as to think that "everyone is smart in their own way." No, there is such a thing as higher general intelligence. But among high general intelligence people, there are different cognitive strengths and characteristics. The MIT cast of mind is one of many. Thus, sweeping statements like "MIT undergrads represent the smartest and most creative people on the planet" seem, well, too sweeping. 🙂

        I strongly agree, however, with the larger idea of this post, which is to rally the independent minds of the country (mainly smart young people) and incent them to work on the biggest problems of the day.

    • Eliza Eddison

      Speaking as an MIT undergraduate, there is no gaming the system here. It's the purist meritocracy I have ever encountered in my life — if you can't cut it, you go home.

  • AJG

    I like the idea, but it doesn't have to be restricted to just the smartest students. Find some corporate sponsorship and put up a website where people can contribute supervised by some engineers that have credentials in the area of undersea drilling. This could be put together quite rapidly and start a discussion of ideas with sound engineering principles. Then take that to someone in the white house or the news media to get the ball rolling. " We the People" should have a say about our future since it looks like we may very well get stuck with most of the bill for the cleanup and the years of economic destruction.

  • Bazily

    Brad, was buying the MIT shtick until you propose a bunch of undergrads with no real world experience (your Apollo 13 guys did) should be paid upfront for a solution they may never attain. Largest environmental disaster in US history and you want a retainer, classic.

    • I love the idea of undergrads with no real world experience. Some of the most amazing intellectual breakthroughs in history have come from people that think about the problem differently – without the blinders of \”experience\” and \”expertise.\” Regarding the compensation – it doesn't really matter what it is – that wasn't my point. Rather, my point is that the economic cost of paying 20 students $25k each is trivial in the grand scheme of things, especially if you believe the upside possibility that they might come up with a solution that no one is thinking of.

  • Sunil

    You guys couldn't have come up with this idea on day 5 or 6 !

  • Derek Scruggs

    This seems like the kind of thing Google would fund.


    Just don't listen to Wild Bill Clinton

    Besides stopping the leak more R&D for Future Prevention – redundant emergency plugging method that failed initially especially since Obama still wants to overide the judge who said to continue with deep water drill rigs in place.

    • Yeah, I saw a short news clip about Bill Clinton's comments. What i got was he says that:

      1) Let's put a huge bomb down there to blow the well up
      2) It works – it's done all the time, all over the world (but maybe not before, at this depth)

      From what I've read, this is a highly effective technique for stopping a gusher. The material is blown to bits and then falls back in on the well to seal it. But I have no idea what the success/failure rate is. When i first heard it, it sounded like a crazy idea. Clinton's not MIT, but he's a Rhodes Scholar and he's become convinced.

      Does anyone know what the real score is on going with this approach? I wonder if it is "plan C" if the relief well doesn't work. They say the well may have fractured and may actually be leaking from a cross-section of the sea floor; and if that is the case the relief well approach may fail.

      • fyi there's some pretty good information about efforts so far, to contain the gusher, in the main Wikipedia article:

        Admiral Allen is quoted as saying the risk with using explosive is to potentially create an even larger calamity:

        "what you may do is create open communication between the reservoir and the sea floor."

  • Stephan

    Love the idea (glad you acknowledged Stanford… ), but I think you should widen the scope to include past Graduates as well.

    I’m a Stanford Fellow (Masters of Science in Mechanical Engineering) that is out of work and I have a bunch of other top consultants that got hit by the “overpaid” axe 18 months ago and we’re still looking for work.

    Open source the problem and let us all contribute.

    (I too loved the scene from Apollo 13).

  • phil Lelyveld

    I love this idea. You have a well defined population to draw from and a limited time to capture their attention. I say go for it rapidly. If it works, other schools and groups will jump on the bandwagon and either compete or contribute to the crowd sourcing effort. Get media attention and publicize this to the mountaintops, and BP will seek you out.

  • Why does BP have to approve/authorize/agree with this idea? Contact MIT (or other schools) directly and propose they pull a group of students together. I'm sure they could figure out how to get students to volunteer or work it into some kind of clinic project. It sounds like there's enough data out there to at least get them started and I agree, sometimes the most creative ideas come from the least expected source.

  • What a great idea. Assuming BP paid for it, the cost of doing this would be about equal to what they are spending very 90 seconds trying their currently unsuccessful approaches.

    James Mitchell

  • via email:

    Certainly getting together a team of people from MIT or anywhere to “think tank” the problem is useful, though probably less so for their value as a team of “creative thinkers” than for their ability as a lightning rod to draw in diverse ideas from all over the world and parse them down into coherent and rational possibilities for creating a solution or solutions.

    When folks with little experience in extreme environments try to involve in such situations or think of solutions or even simple operations planning in such environments, we find that it is very easy for mistakes, often HUGE mistakes to ensure or unfold.

    In essence, that is part of what got us the BP gulf disaster in the first place – younger, aggressive, inexperienced folks pushing ideas that sounded great … and not understanding how to characterize the risks or the operations environment.

    Convene your team if you like but reach out and get not kids from MIT as sole team but find Navy Special forces and Seals who have worked deep and saturation, folks from classified deep robotic projects, folks from nuclear and national lab projects, and recruit a DIVERSE team of the MOST experienced people from every aspect of the technologies or options that might be used … and convene them in a remote location for and demand a solution.

    Simply put, it takes TIME and EXPERIENCE to learn what is actually possible and not possible with a given technology in such extreme environments, and so far, the attempts have been by folks lacking that depth of experience and hence have not met with much success.

    Convening a team with even less experience will generate many creative ideas without anyone with the skills, knowledge and experience to rationally vett them for good workable ideas.

    DO this, but add “a bunch of highly experienced old curmudgeons” to the team to keep the team efficiently tracking what is realistically “do-able”.

    Then negotiate a “solve-it” deal with BP to give the team (and the investors in the team) a percentage of the bucks saved or such … so that there is a HUGE payout for success.

    That will help keep the mickey mouse nonsense to a minimum as everyone on the team sees a huge rational reason to make sure they build something that works … (how Howard Hughes used to get such massive successes from his special projects teams)

    The technologies to solve this exist and can be implemented rather quickly, but one has to weigh the political realities against the “solution space” and find something that is acceptable to all parties to deploy as a solution, and so far, that has proven difficult to achieve.

    In essence, a solution has to not only WORK technically, but has to be salable and palatable politically.

    Example … say – hypothetically – that we have the technology and the model to emplace a sub-sea-sub-surface (under ocean floor) nuclear weapon to create a void and sealing glassification layer … and that we know how to model it, have tested it, and can make it work, and deploy it quickly and effectively.

    Who is going to sell all parties from the Navy to National Labs to Black Project teams to NCA (National Command Authority – the president) etc. on releasing this technology and authorizing deployment of it?

    Might be better to let it bleed oil than admit we have such technologies in some cases, and in other cases, even new technology is not salable as someone has to assume underwriting the risks for it going wrong … and who in their right mind wants to do that?

    So in essence I am suggesting a multi- part solution

    ONE – convene a “gold star team” who is your “special projects board” who will have sufficient credibility to sell a solution to all parties once you find one. (governors, senators, ceo’s, large investors, etc.)

    TWO – convene a “strike team” of old farts with decades of experience working with “don’t know it can’t be done” bright young graduate students, post docs and faculty … who have the “computational brights” but not the experience … stick them together and demand synergism and solutions …

    THREE – sell the payoff to investors and the team (and BP) to pay for solutions …

    FOUR – go home smiling with the bucks

  • When the BP incident first happened MIT was the first thing that came to mind, maybe I watched to many movies but I really thought they were the go to guys in these kind of situations. Instead we get the people that were the smartest years ago. We really need fresh ideas.