I am sitting on an airplane, uneasy and grateful. I am sitting on a plane — this silver triumph of physics and imagination centuries in the dreaming — watching the cotton-candy cloudscape below with wonder bordering on ecstasy that will never, for me, grow old.
I am thinking about my grandmother, who was already a grandmother by the time she flew for the first time, having seen an airplane only once before, in the forest by the remote Bulgarian mountain village of her wartime childhood — a fighter plane shot down to fall from the sky into the life and imagination of a little girl wide-eyed with wonder and terror.
I am thinking, too, of Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (June 29, 1900–July 31, 1944), whose experience as a pilot during that same war sculpted, inspiring his timeless masterwork of philosophy disguised as a children’s book — my favorite of all time.
In a passage from( ) — that slender, poetic collection of his life-drawn meditations on life — he reverences the elegant and daring miracle of flight, a miracle we have come to take for granted in a mere two generations as the technology behind it has exponentially improved to make it even more miraculous. (I am writing this on a book-sized machine that can access through the air nearly all the knowledge humanity has produced, and I am doing that while suspended in the middle of the sky — what would Kepler have made of this, or his mother, who ?)
In anything at all, perfection is finally attained, not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing to take away when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.
There is an ancient myth about theof marble until the sculptor carefully disengages it. The sculptor must feel that he is not inventing or shaping the curve of the breast or the image from its prison.
Engineers, physicists concerned with thermodynamics, and the swarm of preoccupied draughtsmenin this spirit. In appearance, but only in appearance, they seem to be polishing surfaces and refining away angles, easing this joint or that wing, rendering these parts invisible, so that in the end, there is no longer a wing hooked to a framework but a form flawless in its perfection, completely disengaged from its matrix, a sort of spontaneous whole, its parts mysteriously fused and resembling in their unity a poem.
It was a countercultural notion then, and even more so today, this idea that the machine can become not theof but a portal to the poetic, the miraculous — a lovely reminder that in how we orient ourselves to anything lies the whole of its valence.
Saint-Exupéry extends the invitation to reorient to this particular skyborne machineand, by a proximate leap of imagination, to technology in general — as something that, rather than alienating us from the rest of nature, could bring us into more intimate and conscientious contact with the world of clouds and creatures:
Startling as it is that all visible evidence of invention should have been refined out of this instrument and that there should be delivered to us an object as natural as a pebble polished by the waves, it is equally remarkable that he who uses this instrument should be able to forget that it is the machine… We forget that motors are whirring: the engine, finally, has come to fulfill its function, which is to whirr as a heartbeatto the beating of our heart. Thus, precisely because it is perfect, the machine dissembles its existence instead of forcing itself upon our notice.
And thus, the realities of nature resume their pride of place… The machine does notfrom the significant problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.
Complement with the uncommonly poetic scientist and philosopher Loren Eiseley on, revisit Saint-Exupéry on and .