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Notre Dame Fire: French Lessons In Risk Management

In all likelihood, the cause of the Notre Dame fire is linked to mundane management issues. It's a symbol for today's French culture.

Firefighters assessing the damage at the Notre Dame cathedral
Firefighters assessing the damage at the Notre Dame cathedral
Jean-Marc Vittori


PARIS — The fire that engulfed the Notre Dame cathedral is a national catastrophe. It has traumatized millions in France, regardless if they are Catholic or not. Images of the flames that consumed the cathedral's 13th-century framework and the iconic spire that was a 19th-century addition have been circulating around the world.

Just as quickly, the event became fodder for all. Donald Trump could not resist giving stupid firefighting advice. Conspirators were shocked that a fire erupted less than two hours before a major speech by embattled President Emmanuel Macron. Lovers of heritage have rushed to the microphones to denounce the lack of public money. In the next few months, armies of bureaucrats will set themselves in motion to produce hundreds of pages of new rules, regulations, and laws aimed at avoiding that such a national tragedy ever happens again.

It is of course too early to know the original cause of this terrible fire. Some wonder if we'll find out it was ultimately a terrorist attack. Or the fire was triggered by a contractor wanting to avoid a penalty for being late in his renovation work, such as happened in the fire that had destroyed La Fenice opera house in Venice. Otherwise, it could have been some unfortunate combination of circumstances: a spotlight too close to a curtain, which caused the blaze at Windsor Castle in England, or the fireworks test that burned the Great Theatre of Geneva.

Perhaps the investigation will reveal that a contractor had overlooked security measures to fit a budget that was too small. But, by far, the most likely scenario is a mundane construction accident. It is probably not the absence of money or regulations that created the disaster, but rather a lack of vigilance. Not a problem of finances or law, but a problem of management.

We need to know how to manage of culture of risk.

Rehabilitating old houses, let alone historical monuments, are long operations that are delicate, complicated and perilous. A feat which requires blowtorches, electric currents mixed with dry wood and flammable chemicals, which triggers a lot of accidents. In Paris alone, the sites of the Lambert Hotel, the Ritz, and the headquarters of Radio France, the National Library, and the City of Science and Industry have suffered fires in recent years.

Maybe it will take more money and even more regulations. But first, we need to know how to manage the culture of risk, which is too often missing in France. The risks of financial investments are overestimated, and the risks of seemingly inconsequential negligence are underestimated. It is the same kind of risk that causes thousands of deaths on the road, sensational accidents like the Concorde supersonic jet and simple home accidents. Notre Dame is a cultural symbol. So too is its fire.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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