Chance, Human Error, and Technological Failure
The crisis brought about by the Andromeda Strain brings into play the most advanced scientific technology of its day and a few of the most brilliant scientific minds. However, although human skill, knowledge, ingenuity and scientific processes play an important role, chance, human error, and technological failure are significant, too. It is only by chance that the Scoop satellite is discovered by some of the townspeople in Piedmont, Arizona, rather than the official recovery team. It is also chance (and human error) that the townspeople take the capsule to the local doctor, who makes the mistake of opening it, thus releasing the organism.
Once the crisis is underway, there are more errors and chance events. One of the most ironic is when a sliver of paper gets caught in the mechanism of the teleprinter box at Wildfire, preventing the bell from ringing to inform the project members that a message had been received. This means they do not know that the president has postponed dropping an atomic bomb on Piedmont to destroy the bacteria. At the time the scientists strongly believe that dropping the bomb is essential. It later turns out they are wrong; dropping the bomb would have provided the organism with an ideal growth environment. The president, acting with little scientific knowledge, somehow made the right decision while the experts were wrong. Because of the teleprinter glitch, there is also a delay before the Wildfire team gets to hear about the plane crash in Utah, which is also a vital element in their inquiry.
Another error shows up in the construction of the Wildfire underground facility. There were supposed to be eight substations in which the person responsible for aborting the atomic self-destruct process might turn his key. But only five were actually constructed. This leaves the possibility that when the three-minute countdown to destruction begins, Hall might find himself sealed off in a sector without a substation, so he must find a subsection immediately. As Hall dryly comments after Stone has explained this, “That seems a rather serious error in planning” (p. 205). It is of course, but such gross errors are not unheard of in the history of technology. In 1912, the Titanic was the most advanced ship of its kind, supposedly unsinkable. Not only did it sink, but it was built without sufficient lifeboats to hold all the passengers. The scientists also make errors in how they go about their task. Burton for example fails on the third day of the crisis to conduct an autopsy on the rats that he had given anticoagulation medication. He finally does this the following day, and the autopsy yields important information—which they could have had a day earlier. Another example is the fact that Stone and Leavitt think the plane crash in Utah is a fluke; they don’t see any possible connection between the disintegration of plastic-like material and the Andromeda Strain. It doesn’t occur to them this is an effect of mutation; had they realized this sooner they might have been alert to the possibility of the disintegration of the gaskets that almost leads to the destruction of the entire facility. As Stone later explains it, the team made errors because they were “problem-oriented. Everything we did and thought was directed toward finding a solution, a cure to Andromeda” (p. 243). This lack of flexibility in their thinking led them to overlook the possibility of mutation.
Finally, it is only by chance that the organism mutates into a benign form; it presumably might also have mutated into another equally or more deadly form.
Heroism and Intelligence
In his acknowledgements, Crichton describes the story of the Andromeda Strain as a “chronicle of heroism and intelligence.” Although the scientists make many mistakes, they do pursue their task with courage and tenacity. In the first place, they show foresight in even envisioning the possibility of an alien bacteria coming to earth in a returning satellite. Stone in particular is a visionary because he is one of the few scientists who take seriously Rudolph Karp’s claim to have discovered bacteria in meteorites. During the crisis, the scientists go about their tasks with logic and precision. They are relentless in their pursuit of knowledge, getting little sleep during the four days the crisis lasts. At no point do they panic or behave unprofessionally, even though they are exposing themselves to great potential danger, as the crisis involving Burton when a seal breaks shows. Also, if the facility becomes contaminated, the atomic self-destruct mechanism will be activated and they will all die. As they work they utilize every scrap of scientific and medical knowledge they have in order to understand an organism that is unlike anything they have encountered before. Hall in particular shows heroism in his last-gasp effort to save the facility from atomic self-destruction. In spite of the effects of poison gas and poison darts he forces himself to reach the substation and turn his key
Chance, Human Error, and Technological Failure