Today, some thoughts about recklessness and
caution. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I can no more shake the image
of shuttle Columbia's astronauts than you
can. This third catastrophe brings NASA's death
toll to seventeen. And it just dawned on me: One
out of every fourteen of the NASA astronauts who've
flown have now died in service. The danger facing
an astronaut is four times greater than the danger
faced by the explorers who signed on with Lewis and
It's a jolt to realize just how great a risk those
people face. Of course they themselves have been
quite aware of the dangers. It is you and I who've
been lulled into complacency. The word
hero, which we too-easily throw about,
really does apply.
Risk-taking is a part of any new technology, and
I've wondered what might be happening to American
technology as we grow increasingly risk-averse. Yet
here is a case where we undertook risk and where it
cost us dearly.
One person helps me to extract understanding from
sadness at this juncture. In 1991, anthropologist
Melvin Konner wrote a book entitled Why the Reckless Survive.
He posed the question: If recklessness threatens
our lives, then shouldn't the reckless suffer
Darwinian extinction? Why isn't each generation
more risk-averse than the one before it?
He answers his own question. We cannot survive
without recklessness. If a parent won't take
chances on behalf of a child, the children won't
survive. Parents must fight a bear to provide food.
They must make a dangerous journey to find
habitable land. They must harness fire.
Our Homo Erectus forbears felt no more
need for fire in their caves than we did for
computers in our homes, back in 1970. Yet a few
primitive creatures were reckless enough to claim
Now we're poised, once more, to claim fire for our
children. We've heard it argued that we can make
weightless experiments, and scan the surface of
planets, with unmanned vehicles. So we can and so
we surely shall. But this adventure is about
something much larger. It's about recklessly
grasping the fire of exploration and outreach.
We've no more found our final habitat here on the
surface of Earth than Homo Erectus did on
the plains of East Africa.
Back in 1969, we went to the moon. Ever since, the
dream -- and our reckless energy -- has foundered.
We've morbidly focused on the morass of earthbound
problems and let each one grow more insidious, and
we've looked up only when some new fireball seizes
our wandering attention. It's time we listened to
Shakespeare who said,
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
I hope we can reclaim that muse of fire --
methodically and carefully, but with a recklessness
of spirit, nonetheless. I hope we can reclaim the
legacy that Anderson, Brown, Chawla, Clark,
Husband, McCool, and Ramon left us.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Konner, M., Why the Reckless Survive, and Other
Secrets of Human Nature. New York: Penguin
Books, 1991, pp. 125-139.
Nineteenth-century Liftoff (clipart)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.