"Sure we can build planes that fly ... "
"And we can manipulate the genome, but can we actually exceed the 'limits of nature'?"
In response to an early 1800's proposal to light English cities by gas, chemist and philosopher William H. Wollaston remarked,
"[They] might as well try to light
with a slice from the moon." London
While Wollaston expressed incredulity in the face of such brazen ambition, others criticized the proposal on aesthetic grounds or on the grounds that it was “against nature”. This poem, originating during the debate, seemed to decry innovation itself:
"We thankful are that sun and moon
Were placed so very high
That no tempestuous hand might reach
To tear them from the sky.
Were it not so, we soon should find
That some reforming ass
Would straight propose to snuff them out,
And light the world with Gas."
These reactions were not unique to the gaslight proposal. Whether in Astronomy, Medicine, Aerodynamics, Machination or Genetics, innovation has long been met with these two voices of opposition: the Voice of Pessimism and the Voice of Doom. The pessimist cries loudly that said innovation is impossible, while the doom sayer resists change for fear of losing something essentially human or of eating and drinking judgment on humanity.
However, the streets of
If we know how to make a thing work, why can’t we make it work every time? Planes crash, the power goes out, phone service is patchy and computers provide us with many hair-pulling demonstrations of the familiar acronym, FUBAR. How large a margin of error can we allow and still call an endeavor a “success”? And can we ever say we have exceeded nature's limits if we continue to experience episodic failure? What are the “limits of nature” if, in fact, they exist at all?