Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #152                                                December 9, 2003
                 A Publication of The Nature Institute
           Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

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Quotes and Provocations
   Flights of Optimism
   In the Service of Science
   From Estrogen to Testosterone
   Biotechnology, Ethics, and the Arc of Life


Announcements and Resources
   Fall Issue of The New Atlantis

About this newsletter


                         QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS

Flights of Optimism

Have you heard the story of Alberto Santos-Dumont?  The flamboyant
Brazilian was the only human being ever to own a personal flying machine.
Taking off from the street alongside his apartment and flying low over the
rooftops of Paris on shopping trips, he would throw his red tie down to
the admiring crowds below, then descend grandly in front of a fashionable
shop, handing the "reins" of his compact dirigible to the doorman for
tethering alongside all the horses.

At the time (which happened to be during the first years of the twentieth
century), Dumont may have been the most famous person in the world.  In
the biography, Wings of Madness, Paul Hoffman writes that "There are
corporate moguls who have helicopters who can fly from their backyards to
the roof of their office, but they don't fly to dinner; they can't fly to
Barney's to shop.  Nobody has had a personal flying machine other than

According to Hoffman, whom I recently heard in an NPR "Weekend Edition"
interview, Dumont invented the dirigible by marrying an early automobile
engine to an elongated, hydrogen-filled balloon.  He would wave his hat
over the primitive engine to protect the balloon from the occasional
flurry of sparks (incidentally triggering a Parisian fashion craze for
slightly singed Panama hats).  Attracted to the idea of flight all his
life, he later played a role in the development of fixed-wing flight, and
believed in the almost mystic qualities of the experience of height.  He
held dinner parties where the guests dined ethereally at ten-foot-high

But what intrigued me most about Dumont was his naïve optimism.  As
Hoffman puts it, "He thought flying machines would bring about world
peace.  He thought you could fly and visit people with whom you had
differences and that would help you understand them better".

World War I, with its casualties inflicted from th