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Phil-osophically Speaking - November 5, 2010

The Romance of Science and Discovery

When I was in the third grade I wanted to be an inventor.  Inspired by MGM’s 1940 biopic, Edison the Man starring the incomparable Spencer Tracy, I endeavored to discover something that would change the world. “Edison,” said one of his principal biographers, “invented the 20th century.”

The incandescent bulb that illuminated cities, the phonograph that captured the voice of civilization and the first motion picture camera that preserved the living images of life itself were creations that Edison had brought to the world. His mind was a miracle and Hollywood was justified in paying homage to the unique genius that made its industry possible.

But Edison’s achievements also spotlights America’s diminishing prospects in the fields of science and engineering. Fortunately we have been buttressed by intellectual capital from around the world attracted to our magnificent universities and research laboratories. Still, for a nation of 320 million people so rich in wealth and wherewithal, our homegrown product is comparatively modest.

Invention has always been an American birthright incarnated by the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell and, of course, the greatest of them all, Thomas Alva Edison. Patent laws and free enterprise unchained the human imagination and the result was a frenzy of innovation. The romance of science and discovery from Morse to Madam Curie captured the spirit of the times and set the world ablaze with creativity. That wild sense of adventure is depressingly lacking in our own time. For a time NASA and the race to the moon engendered the kind of zeal that could reinvent a civilization. But as those briskly felt enthusiasms deliquesced into a more quiescent mood the excitement of exploration drifted into an unruffled complacency, if not indifference.

The scientific mindset, of course, is not the property of everyone. My own career as inventor was short-lived (about two days) when I realized, intuitively, that the fertile fields that yielded great change and novelty lay fallow in my barren brain. But it does exist, thank God, in others if they are inspired and properly motivated. Thomas Edisons are among those rarest of beings, born, not made, whose cerebral dynamite is destined to shake up the world.

But even Edison had to be nourished by the fruits of his environment. Achievement blends one’s innate gifts with the provision of his surroundings. Edison’s mother was a schoolteacher who home schooled him and his father’s impressive library stimulated and propelled his voracious and curious mind. Neither, however, could fully account for the protean genius that engendered an astonishing 1,093 patents including a battery for an electric car that may ignite another technological revolution. So Edison, 80 years after his death, may not be done with our world yet.

Albert Einstein famously said that imagination is more important than knowledge and that quality is, by its very nature, mysterious and elusive. What is clear is at the time of his birth in 1847, Edison’s restless mental energy mirrored the forces of the Industrial Revolution that was transforming America from an agrarian society into an industrial colossus. In this beehive of creativity, the man had met the moment and no union ever produced a richer harvest.

His passion for science burned like an unquenchable lust in his body. It became the source of his boundless appetite for work. His quips that “genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration” and that “too many people miss opportunity because it is dressed in blue overalls and looks like work” is part of the Edison folklore. But it’s also good advice for anyone looking to succeed.  

It’s also a compelling reason to get our children more excited about the possibilities of science. Too many trial lawyers and too few scientists and engineers are not the building blocks of a forward-looking society. Parents matter, so do good teachers. But also stories of real flesh and blood people who have vanquished kingdoms of ignorance and conquered the realms of the unknown. No man, it is said, is an island; even Edison fed upon the brainpower he amassed in his laboratories, but the magic of a single idea, a solitary example, and a lone hero holding aloft the burning torch of truth can set a youthful imagination on fire.

Every aspiring student should see Edison, the Man. First, it’s a heck of a flick and, second, it can plant a seed in the soil of some fertile mind that can first change a life and then change the world for the better. Thomas Alva Edison is not going to be the last genius this big, wide country is going to produce. Let’s do our part to nurture them, inspire them, and give them the berth to spread their wings.