The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania on 28 March 1979 eventually prompted quite a few people to alter their careers, oftentimes involuntarily. But for Yale University sociologist Charles Perrow, author of this issue’s ”Shrink the Targets,” the change in direction was very much his own doing. Asked by a U.S. government commission to participate in its investigation of the mishap, he readily agreed, even though he had never given industrial accidents a thought.

Accidents in those days were routinely attributed to faults in machines or to lapses in their human operators, problems outside the purview of sociology. ”I looked into the reports from Three Mile Island and began to see that the problem went much deeper,” recalls Perrow, now professor emeritus at Yale. He went on to apply what he’d learned to other industrial accidents, in the process developing a theory that traced big failures to the very structure of the organizations that suffered them. For the mishaps he coined a name that became the title of his 1984 book: Normal Accidents .

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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush

Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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