Friday's article on the T2 explosion has had a lot of readers, thanks to links from various outside sources. One line from it has attracted a disproportionate amount of comment - the one where I mentioned that the two owners of the company had only undergraduate degrees. This needs some clearing up; I should have explained myself more clearly in the original post.
First off, there are two things I most definitely didn't mean. I do not, of course, mean to imply that anyone without a graduate degree is incapable of running a complex or hazardous chemical process. Nor am I assuming that there's some sort of magic in a graduate degree program that turns a person into someone who actually can run such things. I've seen enough smart people who didn't go to grad school (and enough fools with PhDs) not to believe either of those.
The key thing here (besides intelligence, which is necessary, but not sufficient) is experience. And what experience gives you, among other things, is a sense of knowing what needs to be worried about. That's what the T2 people seem to have lacked. It's no exaggeration that every time I've described this accident to an experienced scale-up or process chemist, their response has been outrage and incredulity. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, and my apologies in advance to any relatives or colleagues of the deceased, but these people were conducting a very hazardous chemical process, and the lack of care they showed while doing so is stunning. No calorimetry to look for exothermic reactions, a totally inadequate rupture disk for venting that large a reactor, no attempt to set up the process as a flow or feed (which also would have given you built-in temperature control), and no backup for the absolutely crucial cooling system.
Now, it's quite possible that if the people who set up the T2 reactor had been through a graduate program that they would have gone on to do the exact same thing. But it might have helped a bit, which might have been enough to keep four people from being killed. Graduate work is supposed to involve research, experiments that haven't been run before. If you get a degree that's worth anything, you've had the experience of having to figure experimental setups out on your own, and that means that you should have had some chances to think about what might go wrong with them. And the larger the scale of your chemistry, the more you should think about that last point.
Having a couple of reactions take off and spray the inside of your fume hood brings home the problems of heat transfer and pressure relief in a way that no textbook can quite match, and that's not something that you'll experience as an undergraduate in most colleges. Now, it's true that you can experience that at work, too, where the lessons will be even more vivid. That's why in an industrial setting an experienced chemist without a doctorate is almost always much more worth listening to than a freshly arrived PhD - if they're any good, they've seen a lot and they've learned from it.
The people running T2 not only did not take proper precautions, they had been told that they needed to bring in a consultant to look over their process. In other words, "get someone in here who can see things that you're overlooking". But they didn't do that. It's also possible that they might have brought someone in and ignored their recommendations, too, and there's no degree program that can keep you from acting like that, either. They'd run this thing over and over just the way it was, and they probably thought that everything was under control. But it wasn't. And they had no idea.