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Engineering Odysseys

Scientists’ curiosity often turns them into world travelers. But the ease of travel makes it hard to really get away.
October 1, 2001

Finish your summer book list? Mine included Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354, translated by H. A. R. Gibb; The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin; and a pair of books by Boston’s most enduring couple, Brad and Barbara Washburn (The Accidental Adventurer: Memoir of the First Woman to Climb Mt. McKinley, by Barbara with Lew Freedman; and Exploring the Unknown: Historic Diaries of Bradford Washburn’s Alaska/Yukon Expeditions, edited by Lew Freedman).

The pattern is obvious. Burning with wanderlust, having O.D.ed on in-flight magazines, I’ve gone to the sources in search of a fix.

This may seem odd. For the last decade, I’ve schlepped around the world, visiting all 50 states, about half the world’s countries and every continent but Antarctica. One might think I’d long for homey books by Bob Vila or Martha Stewart. Instead, I am following the footsteps of many other curiosity seekers. And since science is essentially a curiosity-seeking business, it isn’t surprising that so many scientists have wandered out of the laboratory and into faraway places. The jarring experiences you get on an ambitious trip are a spur for new ideas. Many a creative work, whether in science or the arts, begins with a boondoggle.

Alexander Graham Bell was an early president of the National Geographic Society. Yale professor Hiram Bingham used to salivate over the blank spots in the map (there still were some in the 1920s). He could have been the real-life model of Indiana Jones: on one typical quest in 1911 into the jungles of Peru he stumbled upon the lost city of Machu Picchu. Nobel physicist Richard Feynman fixated on Tannu Tuva. Murray Gell-Mann, another Nobel physicist, seems to have been everywhere. Ask him about Bhutan. He may reply in Dzongka.

Darwin’s five-year, round-the-world voyage on the Beagle is the sort of intellectual and geographical epic that scientific legends are made of. Three years into the journey, green and puking with seasickness nearly every day, he reached the Galpagos Islands, about 1,000 kilometers west of Ecuador. There he saw with his own eyes a startling pencil sketch of evolution in action. It blew his mind. But think about this: if Darwin hadn’t gone, he most likely would have wound up as a career pastor. Charles Darwin: a creationist?

A friend of mine was an MIT student of strobe light inventor Doc Edgerton, who dragged him to the Bahamas and the Scottish highlands, ostensibly to try underwater gadgets in search of Atlantis and the Loch Ness monster. Now, I had assumed that Atlantis was on Santorini in Greece (site of the largest volcanic explosion known on earth), not the Bahamas, and that Nessie-spotting could only be done after a thorough tour of regional single malts. But on those trips, they debugged things like sonar, hydrophones and Doc’s underwater cameras. Anyone who has taken a picture with a Nikonos owes a debt of gratitude to intrepid souls like Edgerton and his dive buddy Jacques Cousteau. Their cameras were worth far more than the sea monsters they never saw.

Scientists aren’t the only ones with wanderlust. Johann Sebastian Bach crisscrossed Germany on foot: ambitious hikes for a man with a Sunday church job and a stable full of kids. Franz Liszt played concerts from Paris to Baghdad to Kiev; had he never written a note of music, he would have gone down as one of history’s great travelers. Leonard Bernstein was a travel agent’s dream, a man who took his musical passions all over the globe. Think of Teddy Roosevelt, not just a president but a serious bushwhacker who almost single-handedly kept Willis and Geiger in the safari jacket business for decades. Or Ben Franklin, who pioneered shuttle diplomacy and earned frequent-sailor miles with his work in Paris.

Writers and storytellers are also impelled to travel. There was Hemingway. Or Mark Twain (did you know he took a four-month trip to Hawaii and wrote about it as a travel correspondent?). Or Michael Crichton, whose life has been a grand odyssey (his book Travels is a clue). I once checked in at the Galle Face hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and noticed that filmmakers Sir David Lean and Steven Spielberg had signed the registry before me. So had Crichton. And Arthur C. Clarke. Coincidence?

While I was there, I recalled that the giant bats in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were the same Sri Lankan bats Lean had used in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Sir David spent long fallow periods between films on journeys of his own. Movies like Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, and A Passage to India all share an interesting feature: a magnificent steam-driven train chugging through some exotic land. It is a symbol of epic lives.

So the travel bug infects us for good reason. And to think I thought when I joined the faculty at MIT that I’d be wiping the chalk off my coat. Ha! It soon became obvious why Media Laboratory faculty were among the world’s most frequent fliers. Computers and networks spread digital technology everywhere, so even more than usual, MIT professors began receiving lecture requests from every corner of the globe. And it happened precisely when technology was turning the travel industry on its ear.

Suddenly you could book a whole trip with an e-mail or two. Paper tickets vanished into e-land. Behind the scenes, invisible travel databases swung into place. I used to amuse myself by bringing a tiny (and at the time, superadvanced) Global Positioning System device on planes. I watched the atlas on my laptop glide by, a little like being in a glass-bottom boat. My e-mail was stamped with a lat/lon to show where I was when I sent it. Then the airplanes began showing the same video maps. And the European guide Relais and Chateaux began listing GPS coordinates for each country inn.

Technology has made travel so easy that getting away is getting hard. Airports have morphed into a maze of indistinguishable shopping malls. Used to be you’d travel to go someplace different. But often when you arrive it feels like you never left. It’s a strange trend. Real travel experiences seem to have succumbed to a kind of global Disneyfication. Blank spots have been scrubbed from the map. Journeys are canned and packaged. Wherever you go, TVs are tuned to CNN, Internet browsers are set to My Yahoo! and cell phones ring. Shopping malls sell the same Godiva. The traveler sails through a veneer of reality on a magic carpet of databases and global brands.

With effort it is still possible to get a taste of different realities. And young scientists still need to be trailblazers. They benefit from being led astray, into the unknown, once in a while. We all do.

One of MIT’s great educational movements took place in 1969, when Edwin H. Land helped launch the UROP program, along with Margaret MacVicar, who really shepherded it into existence. UROP-which stands for Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program-gives students a chance to work side-by-side with great scientists on the most thrilling questions of all: questions nobody knows the answer to.

With MIT’s endless industrial ties, labs extended readily through corporate arms. And now, as never before, the world is our laboratory. There are opportunities for young scientists to get way out of the box and do extraordinary things. My own undergraduates have been to Everest and Greenland for geology, to Singapore and Japan for infrastructure; they’ve taught English in rural China. This fall, several of them will attend the University of Cambridge, part of MIT’s new exchange program, where they may finally learn English!
In 1325, when Ibn Battuta left Marrakesh as a 20-year-old, he was on his hajj-the pilgrimage to Mecca that was (and still is) part of every Muslim’s coming of age. It marked the end of one’s schooling-and the start of an education. After reaching the holy city, he kept on going: he literally walked around the world for about 30 years. He saw a more fantastic spectrum of intensely different cultures than perhaps any other traveler before or since. His motto: “Never the same road twice.”

That’s the way of science, too.

In a world where the beaten path through the global village is so well paved that it takes work to get off it, I love getting advice from tireless Brad Washburn. Brad, a man who nowadays measures his age in geological epochs, and who might have dated Amelia Earhart (but was smart enough to land Barbara), founded Boston’s Museum of Science and is one of the world’s great explorers. He loves to recite his favorite line from Goethe: Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

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