What is your quest?

Did you see the pictures of Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, obtained from 3000 m under the Antarctic Ocean?[1] The images are amazingly clear and the ship remains in a good state of preservation, despite having been at the bottom of the sea for more than a century, and you can easily read its name plate. The wreck will not be disturbed, as it is a designated monument and protected under the Antarctic Treaty. Looking at the images, I found myself caught up in the excitement of the discovery and the details of the search; it adds an extra chapter to what already was an epic tale of human endeavour, survival and leadership.

At the beginning of February, news came through that Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour, in which he landed and mapped the east coast of Australia, had been found off Rhode Island. I suspect another expedition will be conducted to gather further information on this wreck but, if these vessels are going to be left alone once found, I suspect many people will ask: What is the point and is it worth it?

I have heard similar questions voiced about the recent launch of the James Webb Space Telescope[2]. The stated objective of this mission is to explore a wide range of scientific questions to help us understand the origins of the universe and our place in it. While those with a scientific bent may understand this, those of a non-scientific background are just as likely to say ‘so what?’ and ‘there are more pressing issues to spend money on’.

There is, of course, a more fundamental reason why we perform such activities. In an article written before the discovery of Endurance was reported, searches for shipwrecks were referred to as romantic quests. While success provides a reward, the act of searching meets an inherent human need. This rationale was supported in a separate article, more relevant to the James Webb telescope, answering the question: ‘Why do we study the stars?’. The answer given is that we do not know what we might discover but, more than that, it feeds an innate hunger within us, which is part of being human. The article concludes with the suggestion that this non-material hunger can drive people to any number of other activities.

I have not heard the word ‘quest’ used for a long time: it seems old fashioned and has fallen out of regular use. The simple definition of quest is ‘looking for or seeking: a search’. Alternatively, it can mean the object of a search, such as a goal or a target. One definition specifies a long search for something that is difficult to find or to achieve. People are said to embark on a quest with the implication that it will be a journey with the same challenges and obstacles as sailing a ship.

A quick look around shows us people engaged in any number of quests. Some people identify their quest early in life and pursue it with dedication. This can be to achieve a major goal such as career success, an Olympic gold medal or a particular scientific breakthrough. More commonly, it is the pursuit of a passion, either within the workplace or alongside our everyday lives. Often the quest is just to make a difference. A quest gives a purpose and, as mentioned above, a way of meeting our human needs.

You may find this amusing, but NDT does provide a number of opportunities to embark on a quest. The Institute is successful because any number of people have adopted a quest to contribute to the furthering of our profession. However, the overall quest of everyone within the NDT community is the search for defects within components to maintain safety. Every inspection performed is a quest in its own right: What is the cause of that signal? Is it of innocuous origin? If not, what defect would give rise to such a signal? How can this be confirmed? Even if an inspection does not detect a defect, it is still a success and it is on to the next one.

The NDT quest is ongoing.

  1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-60662541
  2. www.jwst.nasa.gov/index.html

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Jacobs or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438301; Email: ndtnews@bindt.org or email Bernard McGrath direct at bernard.mcgrath1@jacobs.com

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