Proximate

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Proximate

Post by Archived Topic » Sat Jan 05, 2002 5:05 am

In this morning’s Los Angeles Times the following appeared in an article on the failure of the Genesis space capsule:

http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la- ... 4044.story

October 15, 2004 The Nation: Genesis Crash Blamed on Installation Error - NASA says the space capsule, built by Lockheed Martin, went down in the Utah desert because a crucial switch was put on backward. . . . . If the system had operated as it was supposed to, the first chute, known as a drogue, would have slowed the capsule until being ejected and replaced by a second, heavier chute designed to slow the capsule to about 10 mph. Helicopters were waiting with special hooks to pluck the capsule out of the sky.

"The board is working to confirm this PROXIMATE cause to determine why this error happened, why it was not caught by the test program and an extensive system of in-process and after-the-fact reviews of the Genesis system," Ryschkewitsch said.
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I have never before encountered the word ‘proximate’ and have no feel for its usage or why this word would here be chosen as opposed to some other (e.g. possibly ‘approximate’). The statement was made by NASA and I would assume (perhaps wrongly so) that NASA carefully chose to use this particular (and uncommon) word as opposed to some other one to convey a nuance of meaning. However, the possibility does exist that ‘proximate cause’ has evolved as a piece of NASA jargon that the rest of the world is not privy to, or perhaps it actually is a technical or legal term that does have some general currency.

Some of the dictionary definitions I found were (and sorry Wiz for any linguistic chauvinism, but I don’t have an Australian dictionary handy to level the playing field for you):

PROXIMATE: 1) close, very near or next or nearest as in space, time, or order (immediately before or after in order, place, occurrence, etc.). See synonyms at ‘close.’ 2). approximate; fairly accurate. 3) forthcoming; imminent. 4) Coming next (before or after) in a chain of causation, agency, reasoning, or other relation; immediate: opposed to ‘remote’ or ‘ultimate’: ‘proximate principle,’ ‘constituent,’ or ‘element ‘(Chemistry), one of those compounds of which a more complex body is directly made up, and which are therefore first arrived at in the process of analysis: so ‘proximate analysis.’
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I have tried to pair all the above definitions with ‘cause’ and none of them seem to really jell.

‘Approximate cause’ (or possibly ‘fairly accurate cause’), which was my first guess, makes no sense since the cause they are discussing is not approximate but would quite precisely be – “the gravity switch was installed backwards.” I’ve worked on space projects and at NASA Ames Research center for many years and in my experience, when there is a failure, no one is looking for ‘approximate’ causes this late in an investigation.

‘Near, close, next to, etc. cause’ doesn’t seem to make any sense either. NASA wants nothing less then a ‘precise cause,’ THE cause.’ ‘Forthcoming, imminent’ are possible, but ‘imminent cause’ and ‘forthcoming cause’ just doesn’t sound right, although ‘probable cause’ might have worked.

A possibility that that could work is the idea of an ‘immediate cause’ as opposed to a ‘remote’ or ‘ultimate’ ‘cause.’ I don’t like this idea very much, but they might be saying that the backwards switch was the immediate cause, but that the ‘remote/ultimate’ cause was shoddy inspection practices, poor training of technicians, failure to use a switch designed in such a way that it could not be installed backwards. But these types of ‘causes’ are not usually given when an investigation is under way to discover why a system failed or even later on when the question is asked “what caused the disaster? (e.g. the Challenger failed because of that infamous O-ring, the Columbia tragedy was a result of a piece of foam insulation punching a hole in the heat-shielding tile. But, I suppose that very long term and ‘ultimately,’ one could say that these disasters were caused by systemic failures in how NASA generally went about its business).

Would appreciate any enlightenment on what NASA might have been trying to get at with their use of this word (phrase) and why they chose this particular one and perhaps not something more familiar (at least to me) that might have more simply and clearly (to this simpleton) conveyed their intended meaning.
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Ken G – October 15, 2004

Submitted by Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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Proximate

Post by Archived Reply » Sat Jan 05, 2002 5:20 am

Ken: Surely you're pulling our collective leg. I have encountered the expression "proximate cause" hundreds if not thosands of times and I get 58,800 hits on it
Reply from dale hileman (Apple Valley, CA - U.S.A.)
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Proximate

Post by Archived Reply » Sat Jan 05, 2002 5:34 am

"Proximate cause" is most frequently used in cases of death and accident and refers to the "sine qua non" causal factor. It's not the bullet that kills you, it's the hole, but the bullet is the proximate cause of death. If the hole doesn't kill you, but you die of septicemia several days later, the bullet is still the proximate cause of death even though it was the infection that killed you. Without the bullet, you would not have died.
Reply from Russ Cable (Dallas, TX - U.S.A.)
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Proximate

Post by Archived Reply » Sat Jan 05, 2002 5:49 am

Giving Ken the benefit of the doubt, he is no doubt onto some ultra-subtle distinction far beyond our immediate comprehension, or at least mine
Reply from dale hileman (Apple Valley, CA - U.S.A.)
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Proximate

Post by Archived Reply » Sat Jan 05, 2002 6:03 am

Dale and Russ, Thanks. Yes and no. But actually, I goofed. I had quickly checked all my dictionaries for ‘proximate’ (with the above results), none of which listed ‘proximate cause’ separately, and assumed we were dealing with some weird usage. I forgot, in my haste, to do one of the most important things one can do in such situations, in spite of what some nonbelievers think – GOOGLE it! (<:) ‘My bad!’ (see Wordwizard ‘word search’), a now revolting (at least to me) expression, but, in this instance, hmm, actually quite appropriate and which one of my students keeps dropping – and who knows, if they keep at it long and hard enough it might even become accepted usage and I might even come to appreciate its usefulness! (<:)

Well, from all indications ‘proximate cause’ does appear to be a legal term (and it does have that smell). The clearest and most concise single definition I found on the internet was (in agreement with Russ’ explanation):

PROXIMATE CAUSE: The initial act which sets off a natural and continuous sequence of events that produces injury. In the absence of the initial act which produces injury, no injury would have resulted.

The OED failed me on this one and I am surprised that this expression is not defined, although on a second look I did find it appearing in some quotes, with no explanation of its meaning.

It is interesting to me, though, that the path from the word ‘proximate’ to the legal phrase ‘proximate cause’ isn’t all that clear from my above dictionary definitions. In hindsight, it now seems that the definition of ‘proximate’ probably being invoked is the OED’s “immediate: opposed to ‘remote’ or ‘ultimate.’” However, it appears to me that using this legal definition of ‘proximate cause,’ it will not always be clear what is ‘immediate’ and what is ‘remote or ultimate’ (although I’m sure trial lawyers, getting paid by the hour, would not have any problem coming up with a solution). It seems that the ‘initial cause’ could easily be interpreted as the ‘ultimate cause.’ I mean, the distinction between ‘initial’ and ‘ultimate’ may not always be crystal clear and easy to decipher. If a person dies as a result of having HIV, for example,’ what is the ‘proximate cause’ of death? I suspect many would say the immediate cause was the final infection, but according to the above definition it is the “initial act which sets off a . . . sequence of events” so might not the ‘proximate cause’ then be the tainted blood transfusion or perhaps the unprotected sex act? Or maybe just HIV?

However, in the case of Genesis the usage is fairly clear. The immediate cause of the failure, the ‘proximate cause,’ was clearly the backward switch and the ultimate failure might be attributed to something like a defect in NASA’s system of engineering checks and balances.

Ken – October 15, 2004

Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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Proximate

Post by Archived Reply » Sat Jan 05, 2002 6:17 am

To yield benefit of the doubt, Laverne, who is very literate, had nevertheless not heard the expression and agrees with Ken that it doesn't sound quite right
Reply from dale hileman (Apple Valley, CA - U.S.A.)
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Proximate

Post by Archived Reply » Sat Jan 05, 2002 6:32 am

How come you guys aren't quibbling about the difference between "proximate" and "proximal"
Reply from dale hileman (Apple Valley, CA - U.S.A.)
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