Thursday, November 02, 2006

"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 London with a slice from the moon."

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 London were lit by gas, and later by electricity; the Wright brothers did fly; a man did walk on the moon. The telephone became a common household item; followed by the radio, the television, the personal computer. Wherever naysayers and prophets have drawn a line and declared it the “limit of nature”, we have pushed beyond. This fact affords us great optimism with regard to future innovation, but is there a line which nature will not allow us to cross? Will we sail to the edge of the world and fall off? Or, since one generation's interaction with its world (innovation) changes the world of future generations, will the “limit” expand in measure as our knowledge expands? And is our sense of what “offends nature” shifting, as well? Is the “limit of nature” a mere phantom?

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?