Stopping a Disastrous Plan with Science: the Bay Model

Stopping a Disastrous Plan with Science: the Bay Model


These days if you want to simulate something
in the physical world you use a computer. But what if you couldn’t? What if it was, say, the 1950s and you needed to work out if a bold but questionable
plan to dam the San Francisco Bay was a good idea? The answer is this: The US Army Corps of Engineers
Bay Model. The Bay Model is one and a half acres or more. What you’re looking at is one of our former
scientific, hydrodynamic, engineering testing facilities. And this was the tool, the instrument, that
they used to see what the unforeseen consequences of the John
Reber Plan was going to be. In the 1940s and 50s a man named John Reber had a plan to completely change the San Francisco
Bay. Enormous dams would create freshwater lakes. There’d be brand-new reclaimed land for industry
and for air and naval bases. Reber said it would make the bay a defensible
military fortification, move people safely inland and the newly dammed rivers would provide
huge amounts of drinking water. Reber was not a professional engineer. He was a theatrical producer who had done
a lot of research, but because he worked in showbiz, he knew
how to promote something. And by most accounts he was a friendly, sincere,
convincing man. So unlike other ideas for giant engineering
projects, the Reber Plan actually caught on. Debate went back and forth for years but eventually Reber’s plan seemed realistic enough, at least
to politicians, that the US Army Corps of Engineers were tasked
to see if it was practical and they were given $2.5m, that’s about $25m
today, to find out. And with it, they built this. This model when it was built was the next
level, the next generation. It was extremely accurate as an instrument. At the time there really wasn’t anything better. There’s 250,000 strategically placed little
copper tabs in the bottom of the model to keep the saltwater and the freshwater from
going in and out too quickly, but also to duplicate any little protrusions
sticking up out of the bottom of the bay. The model is 1:1000 scale horizontally, 1:100 scale vertically and 1:100 scale in
time. That means about two hundred times a day, the tide comes in and the tide goes out, because San Francisco Bay has tides and therefore,
so does the model. Everything was hand operated for the first
thirty years. It took probably anywhere between twelve and
fifteen people to operate it, sometimes it was as many as sixty people here
at one time working on various different experiments and everybody had to be totally in sync. It was like an orchestra. And the interns were out there in chairs,
in lab coats, in the water measuring the various different ebb and flow
of the tide. It took three years for Reber’s plan to be
tested here and in that time Reber passed away. And for his supporters, the results from the
model were devastating. It looked great on paper, convinced a lot
of people, but when it was tested they found that it
was only good on paper. The end result was it failed on ninety-nine
different accounts. Wild and unpredictable catastrophic flooding
was just one of them. The dams wouldn’t create lakes, they’d create
evaporation ponds. The tide would create dangerous currents and
waves. In short, not only would the Reber Plan have
been a disaster, it would have been a billion dollar disaster. The ecosystem would have been devastated too, but it was the 50s, so no-one was really thinking
about that. The Corps of Engineers, their job done, figured the model would come in useful again
someday. And it did, helping to test smaller and more practical
schemes across the bay for decades. These days, of course, computers can do all
of that for a fraction of the time and the money, but it’s still a good educational resource. Last time I talked about a grand civil engineering
scheme like this, about Herman Sörgel’s Atlantropa, I said it was a testament to how big we can
dream, but this model is a testament to something
else. To science. To having a hypothesis. To testing it. And then, when it fails, admitting that it’s
wrong. There shouldn’t be any shame in that. Sometimes we follow bad ideas, and changing your mind based on new evidence and allowing others to do the same is something our world should be built on, and it’s exactly what this model made happen.