Friday, May 25, 2007

Practical Visionaries

I just posted the newest essay in the Our Climate Ourselves Essay Series. Here's an excerpt.

This year my nine-year-old daughter has been studying inventions and inventors, and I’ve been learning about them through her. She particularly likes the stories about accidental inventors who were trying to do one thing, made a mistake, and recognized, sometimes years later, the usefulness of what they had done. She finds something very satisfying in these stories. With the unlimited opportunities a child has to make mistakes – fractions, spelling words, and irregular verbs – it must be thrilling to read about grown-ups who made mistakes and became famous and (sometimes) rich in the process.

She is drawn to the mistakes, but I, from the vantage point of middle age, am drawn to the aspiration. How did Bell dare to believe in the telephone or Edison in electric light? Or the Wright brothers – what made them crazy enough to try to fly?
One of her books is a photographic history of the Wright brothers. As we looked through the book together, I first noticed the airplanes, fragile-looking creations of canvas and wood. Then I noticed the pilots, strapped in place with nothing but ordinary clothing between their tiny, vulnerable human bodies and the ground hundreds of feet below. With each flight they must have risked death; the book shows one photograph of splintered wood and torn canvas, all that was left of a crash that badly hurt Orville and killed his co-pilot.

We looked through this book on a day when the news was full of reports of melting polar ice and ocean dead zones and slower than expected recovery of the ozone hole, and there was something in these photographs that raised my spirits. Without doubt many of the products of our inventive spirit – from the atomic bomb to the internal combustion engines that fill our atmosphere with more pollution than it can tolerate – are causing grief all around the world, but these old photographs renewed my hope that our species may find its way through these dangerous times of our own creation.

It was the yearning visible in almost every photograph that raised my spirits.....

Find the rest of the essay here.

No comments: