The Force is all well and good, but if you really need to destroy a Death Star then Heriot-Watt may be the place to start.
Luke Skywalker had the advantage of stolen plans to the original Death Star and was guided by the Force when he destroyed it, but he might have been able to do the job quicker, more efficiently and with a far greater eye to Health and Safety, if he’d just taken the advice of Heriot-Watt’s Dr Guy Walker.
Guy took the Death Star Plans (he didn’t have to steal them, just went for the standard Haynes Death Star manual) and subjected them to industry-standard Hazard and Operability studies. These are the tools which are used world-wide to assess the resilience of key engineering systems like nuclear power stations or oil refineries. Guy used them to assess the Death Star and pinpoint its areas of critical vulnerability.
Luke Skywalker had correctly worked out that a small thermal exhaust tube on the Death Star was vulnerable to a pair of proton torpedoes. However via the scrutiny of these specialised civil engineering systems Dr Walker discovered he could also have used a computer virus or even an infestation of space vermin, or a range of other variably attractive options. These options may not only have involved our hero (Luke Skywalker, not Dr Walker) in less personal risk, but also offered the Rebel Alliance the option of capturing a handy functioning Death Star rather than simply providing a special effects spectacular.
Not, Dr Walker found, that the Death Star was a pushover.
“Fair Play to the Empire: when we used standard level Hazard and Operability studies we didn’t get very far, but when we went with the more intensive ‘Cognitive Work Analysis’ programme, that highlighted areas of Death Star operational vulnerability which Darth Vader, or at least his key management team, really should have been across.”
Holistic thinking on resilience
Dr Walker admitted that he had had a good deal of fun applying these systems to the Death Star, but insists that the project does have its serious side.
“Resilience is a major issue in civil engineering projects, key to our transport systems, power stations, all our major infrastructure projects. That means looking at not only the engineering in isolation, but at how the system operates in the real world, including, most importantly, human interaction with the systems.
“This involves not relying on traditional forms of safety and risk analysis (which failed to show up potential weakness on the Death Star) but using the latest and most up-to-date systems.
“Thinking in more holistic ways is a key attribute for our undergraduates, and I the idea of this project was to get them really, properly thinking about civil engineering problems and not just exam grades. Pity Luke Skywalker couldn’t make that seminar, really.”