This is an article from the fall 2016 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
When the consulting firm run by Roger McCarthy (A.B. ’72, B.S.E. ’72) first joined the public market, NASDAQ listed its stock symbol as “FAIL”—appropriate for a company that’s made a business of failure analysis.
For almost 50 years, scientists and engineers at Exponent—formerly known as Failure Analysis Associates—have investigated more than 30,000 engineering failures, from revolving door malfunctions to the World Trade Center collapse. Their high-profile cases include the Exxon Valdez spill, the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle crashes, Deflategate, the JFK assassination, and James Dean’s car accident. McCarthy joined the company in 1978 and quickly advanced to become CEO, building a successful career out of understanding unfortunate failures.
“I always used to tease my friends that failures are an infinitely renewable resource,” he says. “We can always make more of those, so there’s no danger of my profession going away.”
McCarthy has personally handled cases like the Amoco Cadiz, Exxon Valdez, and Deepwater Horizon oil spills; the Oklahoma City bombing; and the collapse of the Kansas City Hyatt walkways. “People see a disaster or explosion and think, ‘How in the hell do you make any sense out of this jumbled mess?’ And the answer is: physics, materials science, and engineering.”
Investigating a failure follows the scientific method. First, make observations by taking stock of the accident scene and reviewing witness statements. Second, make educated guesses based on what you’ve observed and your knowledge of the system. You can work forward by, for instance, estimating the force required to disfigure a mangled structure. Or work in reverse, by reconstructing events. “If you understand the kinds of loads and forces and impacts it takes to deform material structures,” McCarthy says, “you can piece together a story to account for the damage that you see.”
Third, test your guesses. Experiment with models in wind tunnels, computer simulations, or lab chemistry. “For major fires and explosions, you actually have to map the debris,” says McCarthy. “Blueprints can tell you where all the machine parts were initially located. After a major boom, you have pipes, beams, tanks all over the place—sometimes out half a mile. But if you survey where all the damaged parts ended up, then compare where all the parts started from the blueprints, and just connect them with lines—pretty soon, all the lines will intersect pretty close to the same point. That’s the center of the explosion, and you look for the root cause there.”
Finally, combine all the evidence and draw your conclusions.
Finding success through failure is exactly the kind of thing a philosophy major would do. As an LSA Honors student, McCarthy loved the linguistic logic and mental clarity that his philosophy classes demanded. But the skeptical, scientific part of his brain interfered.
When McCarthy complained to his housemate about a frustratingly esoteric class discussion, the friend—a naval architect—suggested that McCarthy try out engineering. “I continued to take enough courses to get a degree in philosophy, but I started taking engineering courses,” McCarthy remembers. “I enjoyed them, and I was getting As every semester.” But then came his sixth year, when McCarthy had to register for his final courses.
“Back then, we used to register in a big mob scene in Waterman Gym,” he says, which is where he was told that someone named Professor Quackenbush—at the time, the College of Engineering assistant dean in charge of student affairs—had put a hold on McCarthy’s account. When he found Quackenbush’s office on North Campus, McCarthy was perplexed to hear the reprimand, “You can’t do what you’re doing.”
“A good rule of thumb, especially when you’re a philosophy major, is to answer a question with a question,” says McCarthy. “Which is: ‘What am I doing?’ And Quackenbush said, ‘Trying to earn an engineering degree without enrolling in the College of Engineering.’”
With a little linguistic finesse—along with a track record of perfect grades that earned him a plaque as the 1972 Outstanding Undergraduate in Mechanical Engineering—McCarthy was able to LSA his way to a U-M engineering degree.
Quackenbush encouraged McCarthy to apply for a National Science Foundation fellowship and pursue a Ph.D. McCarthy won the fellowship and went on to earn three more degrees in mechanical engineering. “So, when you think about the debt you owe your college advisors and your college—holy mackerel, talk about a percussive impact on my life.”
McCarthy’s life and work developed on the same creative, eclectic course that he insisted on as an undergraduate. He co-wrote the official investigative report of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, fire, and oil spill with a committee that included Donald Winter (M.S. ’70, Ph.D. ’72), an LSA physics alumnus and professor in U-M’s College of Engineering. McCarthy helped convict a murderer by reconstructing the crime and testifying at the trial of the Menendez brothers. His IMDb page—yes, McCarthy is searchable in the Internet Movie Database—includes cameos on Discovery’s MythBusters and the History Channel’s Modern Marvels.
He’s retired now, but McCarthy still consults on projects and thinks about failure all the time, probably just by habit. “My wife always gives me a hard time about it,” he says, “because to her, I’ll do very strange things that a normal person wouldn’t do in terms of risk avoidance and risk adjustment—in my personal and professional life, and even in my hobbies.”
But that’s what happens to someone like him, who’s been fulfilled by thinking practically—and philosophically—about what leads to failure. “You look at life entirely differently when you do what I do.”