The word "invention" can denote ideas far removed
from the machines to which the people of our mechanically
inclined era seek constantly to limit the word. Let us
take one refined example. The zero, invented twice in the
mists of prehistory, once by the Hindus and once by the
Maya, lies at the root of all complicated mathematics, yet it
is not a "thing." Rather, it is a "no thing," a "nothing,"
without which Roman mathematics was a heavy, lumbering
affair. In our time that necessary zero leaps instantaneously
through the circuits of computers, helping to guide a
rocket on the long pathway to Mars. One might say that an
unknown mathematical genius seeking pure abstract understanding was a necessary prehistoric prelude to the
success of the computer. He was also, and tragically, the
possible indirect creator of world disaster in the shape of
"Traveling long journeys is costly, at all times troublesome,
at some times dangerous," warned a seventeenth-century writer. These were true words spoken
of great seas and unmapped continents. They can also
be spoken of the scientific journey itself. Today, magnified
beyond the comprehension of that ancient wayfarer,
we contemplate roads across the planetary orbits,
the penetration of unknown atmospheres, and the defiance
of solar flares. This effort has become the primary
obsession of the great continental powers. Into
the organization of this endeavor has gone an outpouring
of wealth and inventive genius so vast that it constitutes
a public sacrifice equivalent in terms of relative
wealth to the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza almost
five thousand years ago. Indeed, there is a sense
in which modern science is involved in the construction
of just such a pyramid, though an invisible one.
Science, too, demands great sacrifice, persistence of purpose
across the generations, and an almost religious devotion.
Whether its creations will loom to future ages as
strangely antiquated as the sepulchres of the divine pharaohs,
time alone will tell. Perhaps, in the final reckoning,
only understanding will enable man to look back upon his
pathway. For if inventions of power outrun understanding,
as they now threaten to do, man may well sink into a
night more abysmal than any he has yet experienced.
Understanding increasingly begets power, but, as perceptive
statesmen have long observed, power in the wrong
hands has a way of corrupting understanding.
There is an eye atop Palomar Mountain that peers at
fleeing galaxies so remote that eons have elapsed since the
light which reaches that great lens began its journey.
There is another eye, that of the electron microscope,
which peers deep into our own being. Both eyes are important.
They are eyes of understanding. They balance and
steady each other. They give our world perspective; they
place man where he belongs. Such eyes, however, are
subject to their human makers. Men may devise or acquire,
and use beautiful or deathly machines and yet have no true
time sense, no tolerance, no genuine awareness of their
own history. By contrast, the balanced eye, the rare true
eye of understanding, can explore the gulfs of history in a
night or sense with uncanny accuracy the subtle moment
when a civilization in all its panoply of power turns deathward. There are such troubled seers among us today
who fear that the ramifications of the huge industrial complex
centering upon space is draining us of energy and
wealth for other enterprises -- that it has about it a threatening,
insensitive, and cataclysmic quality.
It is a thing to consider, because with understanding
arise instruments of power, which always spread faster
than the inventions of calm understanding. The tools of
violence appeal to the fanatic, the illiterate, the blindly
venomous. The inventions of power have grown monstrous
in our time. Man's newfound ingenuity has given
him health, wealth, and increase, but there is added now
the ingredient of an ever-growing terror. Man is only
beginning dimly to discern that the ultimate menace, the
final interior zero, may lie in his own nature.
"The Invisible Pyramid," by