Airplanes are Magic

Posted February 6, 2008

At the moment I'm about 30,000 feet above the ground, speeding away from Portland at close to 600 miles per hour. This is essentially a magical phenomenon.

I use the word "magic" because it's outside the bounds of our narrow range of direct human experience. We're higher than the peak of Everest, and moving ten times faster than a motorcycle speeding down the highway ... but I can't hold my hand out the window, or feel the bite of the cold on my cheeks. I can look out my little peep hole, but I can't interact with the world outside because I simply wouldn't survive it.

So we can only talk about flying in mathematical abstractions -- and yet, here I am, streaking through the sky with a bunch of tired commuters in a little aluminum tube.

I can understand why doctors and engineers have historically been considered magicians (or witches), lumped in with the superstitious clergy. Today we're (mostly) enlightened to the distinction between science and the supernatural, but that doesn't address the deep disconnect between our experiential intuition, and our modern world. We are still required to have a kind of faith when casually interact with the mechanical, chemical, and biological marvels around us.

I think the foundation of this faith in technology is complexity -- or, rather, our incapacity to fully understand the complexity of our world. If we look at the first age of technology, we can comprehend the entirety of almost every particular device: guns, winches, pianos, looms, and so forth. They existed within the "human" scope of nature, where a single individual could potentially observe, understand, and reconstruct any given device. It certainly required genius to conceptualize and create these things, but the scope of technology was mostly limited to an individuals capacity.

Things are a little different today. The airplane I'm riding in is the result of trillions of calculations, tens of thousands of people, and dozens of companies. The blades in the turbines, the plastics in the windows, the fuel in the wings, the avionics, the control surfaces -- each of these are the result of thousands of hours of research, testing, and development.

So, it's simply not possible for any one person to fully comprehend, much less reconstruct a modern commercial airliner from it's elemental components. From this perspective, commuting to San Jose is essentially a magical experience for the individual, a faith based initiative of sorts.

Of course, there is a fundamental difference between faith in technology, and faith in the supernatural: this airplane does not exist or operate because of mystical hand waving and incantations, rather, those tens of thousands of people, as a collective, fully comprehend this aircraft and continue to reproduce and improve upon it's design.

I guess "magic" might not be the best word for this experience, but it sure feels like a good fit. I remember watching magicians as a kid, cajoling them to pull the rabbit out of the hat, or make the quarter disappear. It feels the same when I get on an airplane, or when I see one fly over head -- something special is happening.

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