The Science of Original Sin


Kensington -- The closest thing I've seen to a bat outta hell came at me in all its evil beauty one morning from the east. It was at first sight only a silent black dot against a white overcast that blocked what otherwise would have been a blinding eastern sky.

Insight travels on strange wings, and arrives always and only at unexpected moments. In this instance it came at 500 miles an hour on a delta-winged B-58 Hustler only 300 feet above the ground.

The plane passed, and the noise hit like an explosion. Then it pulled up toward the overcast, and all four afterburners cut in.

On a fiery column of a quarter-million horses, the damned thing spiraled into the clouds -- and drilled a swirling hole right through to the wild blue. A beam of slant sunlight shot through to a hill in the distance.

That was June of 1961. Had it happened 2,500 years earlier and in the Middle East -- a thunderous noise from the east then a fiery hole blown through the sky -- it would be in the Bible now, and not as a sign of God, but as a Visitation of the Man Himself.

The insight delivered to me that late-spring morning was that power, physical power, not aircraft, was my love and fascination.

And so it came to pass that I changed my college major from aeronautical engineering to mechanical engineering -- the engineering of engines, the applied science of the management of energy and brute physical power.

Human evolution was driven at least partly by the challenges that old Mother Earth has laid on us. We endured a million years of bad weather and hard times to arrive where we are and as we are. To use the nifty locution of Robert Ardrey, author of "African Genesis," we are the Bad Weather Animal, survivors of all that Mother Earth has thrown at us.

And when the weather was good, we stayed in shape as a species by being self-challenging: without the deadly fights and the self-inflicted horror, we would be weaker as a species, rather than now strong, bright and clever.

One of the interpretations of Original Sin is that it is the pretense of man to divine knowledge, the attempt of puny man to achieve the power of the Father God.

Some say we are born with Original Sin. I have a terrific case of it, but I am hardly abnormal in my lifelong attraction to dynamism, movement, force and energy and power.

We humans are different from all the other creatures in that we play with fire. We control fire, use it, manage it, direct it in ever-increasing amounts to achieve ends far beyond those possible by muscles alone.

Would that I could have been an atom-bomb designer. Not out of idealistic political motives premised on stupid rationales of national security. No, much more basic and ancient and instinctual than such idiotic and immediate trivialities. Rather, I would like to ignite the primordial energy of matter -- to use high technical reason to release base irrational instinctual energies -- physical energies, personal energies, godly insane divine energy.

I have never seen an educational science documentary that would, were I a kid again, entice me to curiosity about the workings of the physical world. The educational science shows that are supposed to fire youthful curiosity are way too polite. My curiosity about the physical world was driven by the likes of science-fiction movies where overt challenges threatened, where human ingenuity and the light of reason had to fight dark irrational forces.

The conflict of light and dark is an ancient theme in the stories of Western culture. And central to that theme is the denial of the utility of the animal darkness in ourselves.

Science is reputed as "rational." In fact, though, the curiosity that underlies science is an instinct, and as such it is no more accessible to rational examination than is the pleasure of eating or sex, or the simple desire for either.

Pleasure and desire are the heart of the point here. Curiosity involves both.

Science is curiosity. Science is, at its origin, instinctual, dark and irrational. Science is the blatant tool of Original Sin -- its goal is the power of God, the ability to manage the physical world, to build the physical plant of society -- and also to project force at a distance, to destroy. Divine power must be divinely pleasurable. And irrational science, with its perpetual skepticism and animal curiosity, is the door to the power of God.

And what is God? For me, God is an ideal, but not for ourselves as individuals, rather for ourselves as a species. It is a species ideal.

Humanity has already achieved the power of God. We achieved it on the road from Kuwait City when we laid down three miles of fire on those humans which humans deemed sinners. We achieved it too at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Old Testament stuff for sure -- divine fire from above, burning equally the innocent and the guilty, the naive, the intelligent, stupid, cruel and gifted.

Humanity has achieved the full wrathful power of that earlier God of the ol' time religion. Our innate animal curiosity made that power accessible. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it made man God.

And the newer God, the one of reason and light and love, is that too an ideal? Yes. But, at that, also a 2,000-year temporary aberration, one whose dark truth seeps out between the high-sounding loving words of light and reason.

Humanity's divine worth and power are presently in abeyance. But only for a while. The gods now in the wings, or on the horizon, choose your metaphor, are more worthy of us humans. They are gods of both light and dark. That is man: Joyously, uninhibitedly competitive -- living to use the light of reason to face the challenges of the dark unknown.

Robert Burruss is an engineer and free-lance writer.

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