The miracle of flight

Even in an age that has come to regard journeys to the moon and robot exploration of of the planets as commonplace, flight continues to inspire the same sense of awe and power that it did when th eairplane was new. Aviation, that most hard-edged of technologies, has somehow retained a component of the magic that was so apparent to the first witnesses who saw [Wilbur Wright] fly at Les Hunaundières.

The psychological impact was stunning. If man could fly, was any goal beyond his reach?

The Bishop’s Boys by Tom D. Crouch, p. 369.

What struck me about this passage is that the wonder of flight is still very much alive in my four year old son. Whether we’re launching water rockets of folding paper airplane after paper airplane, he is fascinated by anything that flies. And as a result, so am I. I’m absolutely fascinated by flight again (as evidenced by the fact that I’m reading a book about the Wright Brothers).

This passage also brought to mind Louis C.K.’s brilliant bit on how everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.

Did you fly through the air incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero? You’re flying! It’s amazing. Everybody on every plane should be going “Oh my God! Wow!” You’re flying! You’re sitting in a chair in the sky!

Technology precedes understanding

Engineering was the key. The Wright brothers functioned as engineers, not as scientists. Science, the drive to understand the ultimate principles at work in the universe, had little to do with the invention of the airplane. A scientist would have asked the most basic questions. How does the wing of a bird generate lift? What are the physical laws that explain the phenomena of flight?

The answers to those questions were not available to Wilbur and Orville Wright, or to anyone else at the turn of the century. Airplanes would be flying for a full quarter century before physicists and mathematicians could explain why wings worked.

How is it possible to build a flying machine without first understanding the principles involved? In the late twentieth century, we regard the flow of technological marvels from basic scientific research as the natural order of things. But this relationship between what one scholar, Edwin Layton, has described as the “mirror image twins” of science and technology is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, technological advance has more often preceded and even inspired scientific understanding.

pp. 174-175, The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright by Tom D. Crouch

This is something I’ve often wondered about: whether it was possible for a technology to be based on an inaccurate model. When I’ve asked friends about this, often over a pint in the pub, they’ve looked at me as if I was crazy.

If Tom D. Crouch is to be believed, the scientific models that the Wright Brothers based their plane on were not inaccurate, they simply didn’t exist.

This is not to disparage science. A better understanding of why wings work has lead to better, faster and safer airplanes.

What interests me here is the a similarity between this and Don Norman’s claim that technologies precede our need for them. There Wright Brothers, Wilbur in particular, certainly lend credence to Norman’s statement that “technologists invent things, not sometimes because they themselves dream of having their capabilities, but many times simply because they can build them.”