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From dreamers to destroyers

Tuesday, 4 August 2009 — by

Archimedes, da Vinci, Oppenheimer, von Braun. All great thinkers and inventors. All dreamers. But what else did they all have in common? Something very dark, but at the time, all very necessary…

atom bomb explosion film strip

As our eyes turn upwards, towards the Moon, we celebrate the landings of 40 years ago. And like all arrivals, there was a journey, which is a story unto itself.

You might be forgiven for your envy. After all, like all emotions, it has survival value. Envy drives you to aspire to better things. Just be careful of who you envy. When we look at the lifestyles of movie stars, pop sensations and successful career criminals, we might envy what they have. But if you had to walk a mile in the shoes that got them where they are now, your envy might just subside.

Werner von BraunDr. Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun was an idealist. But he was also a man with a chequered and much disputed history. While few would contest his latter day stature as the father of modern space flight, his beginnings were far less glamourous, if no less profound.

The advent of the Second World War must have come as both a curse and a gift to von Braun, eager to pursue his love of rocket science. On the one hand, his specialist skills thrust him to the very top of the Nazi technical hierarchy, with access to resources he could have only imagined previous to the conflict.

However, Wernher von Braun was no longer building rocket ships to build bridges to the stars in space and beyond, he was devising rocket-propelled devices designed to deliver lethal, destructive payloads into the very heart of the enemy.

Meanwhile, in the wilds of the United States of America, equally imaginative minds conspired to build a new kind of bomb, one not owing its force to anything you’d expect to find in a chemistry laboratory.

J. Robert OppenheimerJ. Robert Oppenheimer was a man of conscience, but will also be remembered as the father of the atomic bomb, an epithet he would loathe.

After the Second World War, Oppenheimer became a chief advisor to the newly created United States Atomic Energy Commission, where he made use of his position to lobby for international control of atomic energy, to help avert a nuclear arms race with the then Soviet Union.

On witnessing the “Trinity test”, the first artificial nuclear explosion on July 16th 1945, Oppenheimer famously recalled a verse from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita:

“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one…”

But many years later, he was to confess that yet another verse had entered his mind at the same time:

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Alfred Bernhard NobelAlfred Bernhard Nobel was a Swedish chemist, engineer, innovator, armaments manufacturer and the inventor of dynamite. Nobel stands apart from those mentioned both before and after. In a real sense, Nobel was a destroyer first and a dreamer second.

In life, Nobel’s fortune was amassed as a direct result of his invention of dynamite, and only later in life was he moved to make amends for his ignominious title, the “merchant of death”.

Enacted posthumously, the Nobel Prize would recognize people whose exploits were for the betterment of all mankind.

Leonardo da VinciLeonardo da Vinci was a true visionary, whose interests were amazingly eclectic, spanning science, physiology, engineering and nature. While we will always remember da Vinci for his contributions to the art world, most notably for the Mona Lisa, he was also a war engineer, creator of such things as siege towers, designs for tanks and the first theoretical energy beam, in the form of concentrated solar power.

Amongst the almost innumerable contributions to science, medicine, chemistry, mathematics and even photography, astronomy and the invention of soap, coffee and chess — Islam contributed enormously to the modern world we live in.

The sheer number of inventions that have poured out of the Arab world is astounding, most of which having a direct and positive impact on the world, such as the advancements in surgery, personal hygiene, chemistry and engineering, in some cases, centuries before similar advancements or discoveries in Europe and the rest of the world.

However, through necessity, their collective inventiveness wasn’t always beneficial to humanity. Islam can also be credited with the introduction of the bomb. As we now know, the Chinese invented saltpetre, which they most famously employed as the principle ingredient in their magnificent fireworks. But it was the Arabs who made that leap of thought and realized that saltpetre could be adapted into an explosive:

“By the 15th century they had invented both a rocket, which they called a ‘self-moving and combusting egg’, and a torpedo — a self-propelled pear-shaped bomb with a spear at the front which impaled itself in enemy ships and then blew up.”

Throughout the centuries, China has inspired and delighted people all across the world, with such colossal contributions as the invention of paper, printing, the aforementioned saltpetre and the compass:

“The Chinese invented technologies involving mechanics, hydraulics, and mathematics applied to horology, metallurgy, astronomy, agriculture, engineering, music theory, craftsmanship, nautics, and warfare.”

They say war is the mother of invention, and so it was that the sustained periods of internal conflict contributed most significantly to our understanding of metallurgy and the advancement of metal technologies, including the invention of the trigger-operated crossbow from the 2nd century BC.

But of all their collective genius, their most abiding contribution to the betterment of war is The Art of War, written by Sun Tzu in the 6th century BC. This treatise on war bestrode mere technologies and formalized the very process of war — transforming war itself into an art form.

ArchimedesArchimedes was at the vanguard of scientific discovery in antiquity. As one of the very first great innovators, such was his ingenuity, the very title of one of his inventions still carries his name — the Archimedes screw.

In addition to his constructive creations, he was also credited with the invention of siege engines, machines capable of lifting attacking ships clear out of the water, and arrays of aligned mirrors designed to focus the full force of the sun upon their hull and sail to set them alight, predating similar ideas by da Vinci by several centuries.

His genius is still to this day little rivaled. Some have even speculated that had he not died (by mistake, on the sword of an invading Roman solider in Syracuse), and his mathematical works been more wildly understood, we might have placed a man on the Moon as early as the 18th century.

Dreamers, aren’t we all…

Whatever your personal feelings are concerning war, great civilizations have risen on the back of conflict and unrest. Those dreamers, those men of imagination and ingenuity of thought, whose ideas have benefited us all so greatly are also the same men who have ended the lives of so many, in a multitude of horrifying and terrible ways…

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Mike McDermott → Tuesday, 4 August 2009 @ 21:52 BDT

Excellent post. Science is one mighty liberal art. It has the power to destroy and build up, to kill and to breath life into.

Simon Wilby → Tuesday, 11 August 2009 @ 6:17 BDT

Well, I don’t know what I can say but I think they made a mark and contribution to the world history.

Anon. → Sunday, 23 August 2009 @ 7:41 BDT

“Whatever your personal feelings are concerning war, great civilizations have risen on the back of conflict and unrest. Those dreamers, those men of imagination and ingenuity of thought, whose ideas have benefited us all so greatly are also the same men who have ended the lives of so many, in a multitude of horrifying and terrible ways…”

This post is excellent. The topic is so cool. This is true, civilization is grounded on both the life and the death instincts of humans.

Anon. → Saturday, 5 September 2009 @ 9:19 BDT

This piece is a good portrayal of the duality of man, that our dark and light sides show themselves more profoundly in the geniuses of our times. Could this be because they can stand to have both sides working at the same time? Are normal individuals just as capable of doing so?

Wayne Smallman → Saturday, 19 September 2009 @ 13:48 BDT

As a species, we are capable of almost anything.

If you consider humanity as a system, with each human beholden to a certain amount of potential, it takes an appreciable amount of effort to exercise that potential. And what we often see is that it is the remarkable amongst us who are far more capable of exercising their potential.

Sorry Comments are close. Quite possibly for a good reason. Share your thoughts on some of my other posts or contact me directly.

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