The world’s first circumnavigation by an aircraft powered only by the sun was just completed this week.
The Solar Impulse 2, created and flown by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, landed in Abu Dhabi after 23 days of flight time – spread over the course of 17 months and 42,438 km (22,915 nmi) of Northern Hemisphere territory.
It’s a strange thing to live in an age when scientific breakthroughs seem so commonplace as to barely merit more than a passing mention before they are lost again in the onslaught of information.
We spend all of a few minutes or a few hours in wonderment before moving on to the next amazing novelty. Time moves more quickly these days than it once did.
I try to imagine the days when even an innovation in clock making and mechanics could provide the discussion of an evening, or longer.
The remarkable clockwork globe here was an innovation in its own time. Its movement was built by Gerhard Emmoser, clockmaker to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and it was inspired by the words of Philip Melanchthon in contemplation of Plato:
“…the wings of the human mind are arithmetic and geometry…
Carried up to heaven by their help, you will be able to traverse with your eyes the entire nature of things, discern the intervals and boundaries of the greatest bodies, see the fateful meetings of the stars, and then understand the causes of the greatest things that happen in the life of man.”
The Solar Impulse 2 flight was 15 years in the making. Bertrand Piccard and his colleague André Borschberg shared piloting duties of a plane equipped with 17,000 solar cells. The undertaking has a dual purpose: To show that it can be done, and to inspire the ongoing pursuit and implementation of renewable energies over fossil fuels.
Exploration, research and innovation aren’t just matters of pushing boundaries of what we already know – they are about dreaming into areas about which we know nothing. The clockwork globe was no doubt inspired not only by the soaring words of Melanchthon, but by ever-growing knowledge of how the world might look from above.
Who wouldn’t want to circle the globe from the comfort of their own drawing room?
Four hundred years passed between the first circumnavigation of the world by water in 1519 (by an expedition initially led by Ferdinand Magellan over three years) and the first aerial circumnavigation in 1924 (by a the United States Army Air Service aviator team over 175 days).
Less than a hundred years passed between that feat and doing the same thing using only the sun as fuel.
We figured out how to harness electricity less than two hundred years ago using water power and coal; transforming sunlight into electricity happened around the same time, but the problem has always been storing that energy for use as needed.
The Solar Impulse 2, like other major achievements in science, engineering and exploration, reminds us that there is always further to go.
Just let that sink in for a few minutes, or a few days.
As Melanchthon wrote, “For I know that you are certainly convinced that the science of celestial things has great dignity and usefulness.”
Words as true now as they were over four hundred years ago.