Thursday, 3 November 2011

Flying Sorcery

Manned flight somehow never quite lost its sense of magic. Ever since Louis-Sebastian Mercier altered his second edition of L'An 2440 to accommodate the recent balloon flight of the Montgolfiers, in 1786; flying machines have provided a persistent trope for science fiction writers. Nearly a century later, Jules Verne would still find wonder in balloon journeys. And a half century after that H.G. Wells was still writing scientific romances about aeroplanes, decades after the Wright brothers had taken to the skies. When the futurists, Italian and Russian alike, wrote their operas, they chose aviators for their heroes.

This sense of wonder is reflected in our daily experience of commercial aviation. I have known confirmed atheists to cross themselves before take-off. The sigh of relief - even applause - frequently to be heard upon landing is a reaction to what is still perceived as a kind of modern miracle.

If we take the Eurostar, or any other kind of international train journey, and we experience extensive delays or cancellations, we expect - and generally receive - some form of apology and material compensation. Somehow we neither expect nor receive the same treatment from an airline. We stolidly accept hours of waiting at the flimsiest of excuses, gushing our gratitude when the winged beast finally deigns to take the air. This is related to the lingering sense of magic that hangs about planes. One does not ask for money back guarantees from the village shamen.

In his exhaustive history of the utopian impulse, The Principle of Hope, Ernst Bloch finds in fairy tales of magic carpets some of the most primitive gestures toward the kind of technological utopian wish fulfillment pioneered by Francis Bacon's New Atlantis. Today, a recent paper in the journal Applied Physics Letters (reported by the BBC) unites several centuries of utopian dreaming with a description of a prototype "flying carpet", employing cybernetic feedback principles, which its designers hope could be suitable for the exploration of Mars.

The above image cribbed from Unsanctioned Speculation.