Search Box

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


I've always thought that in the right time and place, there are certain "inventions" I might have been able to duplicate. I can imagine myself having figured out what kind of spears work best, experimenting with various woods to find the sturdiest, then figuring out how best to sharpen them on a rock.

But, I am no genius. I cannot imagine being the first to look at a rock and thinking, "Hmm, I think I'll smelt some metal out of that."

There are some jumps humanity has taken which have required a mind so incredibly imaginative and perceptive that it is mind-boggling to contemplate.

I am probably clever enough to have figured out how to divert a stream to irrigate a rice paddy. But I would never -- ever -- have figured out how to divert a river so as to generate electricity.

I can imagine conceiving the idea that if you have a friendly male wolf mate with a friendly female wolf, you might get offspring that are really friendly." But I can't imagine being the first person to think, "Okay -- let's splice these genes into that chromosome and try to cure this disease."

I can imagine blowing through a conch shell and discovering the cool noise it makes. I can't imagine being the first to look at a piece of plastic tape and thinking, "I think I'll record sound on that."

I can imagine myself tapping out a beat -- maybe even a catchy one -- with my fingers on a bongo drum. But I cannot imagine what it would be like to look at a blank sheet of paper and just create, out of nothing, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Or Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty ballet.

I can imagine figuring out that if you have two paper cups with a string attached, and put your ear to the cup, that you can sort of hear the other person's voice a little better than you could with your naked ear. I cannot fathom the kind of mind it would take to be the first person to think, "Okay, let's transmit sound through electric waves -- that way people in Massachusetts can just talk to people in California."

I can imagine having figured out how to use charcoal to draw a buffalo on a cave wall. I can tell you, quite honestly, that the idea of putting an electron gun inside a vacuum tube to bounce images off a fluorescent screen so that everyone could have a TV in their den would never have occurred to me.

I'm smart enough to have figured out the connection between sexual intercourse and the appearance of a child nine moons later. All on my own. After, perhaps, some experimentation. I am quite positive I could never have figured out how to come up with a pill which would regulate a woman's hormones so as to prevent that birth. No matter how much experimentation I did. (Well, wanted to do, in any case.)

You may be thinking, well, these more recent inventions weren't just sudden inspirations from cavemen, they were the result of the long step by step evolution of science. As Isaac Newton famously said, "If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the backs of giants." (Newton himself, by the way, was as great a giant as any, responsible for far more than noticing the apple which landed on his head -- something I always felt I could have done.) But many of those individual steps still represent leaps of genius that are simply incomprehensible to me.

I might have been able to figure out how to harness the power of gravity and create a water wheel (once that apple had conked me in the head). And I can safely say I would have been able to tell which heavenly body provides us with light. But I cannot imagine the kind of mind it would take to figure out that gravity bends light. (And that was just one guy, Albert E.)

I can imagine figuring out how to add and subtract, and even multiply and divide. I might even have stumbled across the formula for the area of a square, or rectangle, had I been constantly faced with a reason for doing so. But I would never, not in a million years, have been able to come up with the formula for calculating the area under a curve.

I probably would have had some sense of speed: the impala and cheetah are incredibly fast, the wildebeest less so. Had someone else already invented the stopwatch, I might even have been able to measure their speed. But I never, ever, could have mustered the mental firepower to be able to calculate the speed of light --186,000 miles per second. Both my stopwatch and brain would have failed me there.

I can imagine having discovered, perhaps through an unfortunate trial and error process, that the elements composing gunpowder are quite volatile when heated. I cannot imagine being the person who thought -- "Hey, let's split the atom and build a bomb which can level an entire metropolis."

I'm your typical upper middle class weenie. All my life I've prided myself on silly things like LSAT scores and being able to finish a crossword a little faster than the next guy. But I am, at most, separated from my competition by inches. The people responsible for the creations above are separated from the rest of us by miles.

I'm not even smart enough to comprehend how smart they must be.


Anonymous said...

Sorry for nit-picking, but light actually travels at 186,000 miles per Second, not per hour. Honest mistake, but I wanted to point it out so it could be corrected.

-David Jackson, A friend of Taylor Smith

John Craig said...

David -- Thank you very much, I'll correct the careless mistake, and thanks for reading the blog.

Greg Shaw said...

Excuse me, John, but since you have set the WORLD RECORD in the 200 meter butterfly two or three times in the last 5 years you CANNOT, by definition, be a weanie of middle or any age.

John Craig said...

Greg --
You're way too kind. Had I been able to get either the 50 or 100 records, that would preclude weenie-dom. But I'm not studly enough to do that, so the noun applies. (For non-swimming people, just ask yourself, who looks more studly, the guys who run the 100 meter dash at the Olympics, or the guys who line up for the marathon?)

Thanks anyway though, and thanks for keeping up with the blog.