The title of this email might seem like a riddle: What could nuclear weapons possibly have in common with the circus? The answer: Both involve human beings doing the seemingly impossible.
I recently saw performers at the Cirque du Soleil doing stunts that, had I not seen them with my own eyes, would have seemed humanly impossible. That experience took me back to the summer of 1986, when I was an attendee at the first of Gorbachev’s Forums, designed to develop “new thinking” for survival in the nuclear age. One evening, as a diversion from more serious work, our hosts took us to the Moscow Circus, which has some similarity to the Cirque du Soleil.
As I watched people riding skate boards on stilts, doing somersaults on skate boards, and maybe even doing somersaults on stilts on skateboards (my memory may be exaggerating that one!), I thought how ridiculous it was that most people dismissed efforts at removing the nuclear threat by saying, “You can’t change human nature.” My eyes were showing me people doing what previously would have seemed beyond human nature, so how can people be so sure of our limits when it comes to nuclear weapons?
These observations also relate to an experience I had while doing my Ph.D. in the 1960’s. A number of times, I was tempted to drop out of the program thinking, “Who am I to think I can make an original contribution to knowledge?” That requirement for the doctoral thesis seemed like climbing Mt. Everest — an impossible task, at least for me. Soon afterward, having proved the theorem that became the centerpiece of my thesis, I asked my research advisor, “Is that really enough for a thesis?” Not only was the result good enough, it won me a place on the faculty at MIT. What had previously seemed like an unscalable peak now appeared to be a small hill.
In tackling the seemingly impossible task of sheathing the nuclear sword, it helps to recognize that difference in perspective before and after solving a problem. Ending slavery, giving women the vote, putting a man on the moon, and establishing a new nation “of the people, by the people and for the people” all seemed impossible before they were accomplished, but are largely taken for granted today.
Whether it is somersaulting on skate boards, or making an original contribution to knowledge, or changing human institutions that no longer serve their purpose, it helps to remember that there are far fewer limits on what the human spirit can accomplish than might first appear.
May the New Year bring good things to you — and to the world.
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering
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