Mind Bogglers

Recent images from the Cassini spacecraft have again revealed a hexagonal weather pattern some 15,000 miles across centered on Saturn’s north pole, confirming that the pattern is in fact a long-standing feature of Saturn’s upper atmosphere, since Voyager images revealed the same pattern some 25 years ago. Just think about this — six regular lines of clouds, each some 7,000 miles long in a pattern that has lasted at least 25 years. That truly boggles the mind.

In other news, investigations have disclosed that ITT, a top U.S. defense contractor, revealed details of secret U.S. night-vision equipment used by U.S. troops by outsourcing part of the production to firms in China and Singapore over a period of more than ten years. The company agreed to a $100 million fine, of which $50 million was deferred because ITT’s new CEO had been “cooperative” in the investigation.

What do these stories have in common? Nothing… except that they’re mind-boggling in two different ways.

Defense products historically comprise more than a third of ITT’s total revenues (43% in 2005) of more than $7.0 billion annually, and the annual profits from the company’s defense sector exceed $200 billion. If I understand the situation correctly, for breaking the law about not revealing defense secrets, and doing so repeatedly for over ten years, ITT will be fined in cash terms less than a quarter of its annual profits from defense contracts alone, which contracts it will not lose. The amount of the fine is only about 5% of the company’s annual profit. This is truly less than a slap on the wrist for a long-running illegality in company operations.

The Cassini mission is also a long-running operation, expected to continue through 2008, with launch occurring in 1997, and years of development before that. Over the course of the Cassini mission, ITT’s defense profits amounted to more than the annualized cost of Cassini. From Cassini, we’ve gained a far greater understanding of our own solar system, and particularly that of Saturn and its satellites. From ITT, we’ve gained… what?

The understanding that: (1) the pursuit of profit is greater than patriotism and more powerful than the requirement to obey the law; (2) that these disclosures could lead, if they have not already, to an increased number of deaths of U.S. servicemen and women; and (3) these illegal and unconscionable actions can be papered over with what amounts to a token fine?

That’s almost as incomprehensible as a naturally occurring hexagon that could swallow something like four complete planets the size of Earth.