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One freezing dawn in November 1988 at Edwards Air Force Base, in the high desert sixty miles northeast of Los Angeles, a group of reporters found themselves standing near the runway looking at a huge, long, ungainly flying wing. Called the Centurion, it was proportioned more like a stepladder than an aircraft. There was no fuselage of tail, only fourteen electric motors with awkward, fat propellers spaced along a 247-foot Mylar-covered wing. The transparent, drooping wing didn't seem capable of supporting its own weight. A resolute hawk could rip it to shreds.
When the ground controller first applied power, the windmill-like props began to turn so languorously that it was hard to believe they could have any effect at all. But against al] odds the plane began to roll. As it gained speed the wingtips flexed upward with a kind of stately majesty, not unlike some great mythical bird slowly unfolding its wings or a massive ocean liner edging away from the pier. Gradually it rose from the runway, in the words of Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Jones, "never exceeding the speed of a man riding on a bicycle." From a distance it strummed psychic chords about huge silent objects hanging motionless in the sky. As the wing passed over their heads, the watching reporters cheered.
Designed and built by Paul MacCready's company, AeroVironment, the Centurion was designed to run on solar cells during the daytime and fuel cells at night. The commercial version, called the Helios, would stay up as long as six months at a time, flying in small slow circles high over a city. Earlier versions of the aircraft, called the Pathfinder, had reached 80,000 feet-higher than rain, hail, the jet stream or weather. Once in commercial operation, said AeroVironment, the Helios would serve as a "stratospheric satellite," doing everything a communications satellite does but do it from an altitude of 13 miles instead of 22,236 miles.
Because Helios used off-the-shelf components, it would be straight-forward to build. As it ran on solar power, fuel costs would be zero. With the propeller shaft being the only moving part, the electric motors would be maintenance-free. The Helios would fly at around 60,000 feet, an altitude low enough that it wouldn't need space-hardened (cosmic ray resistant) electronics. People could communicate with it via light mobile phones and portable computers. Unlike satellites, whose technology couldn't be updated during their six-to-ten-year lifespan, the Helios could return to earth for new technology retrofits every six months. Wireless broadband Internet service would be available to home users at a small fraction of the estimated $1,000 hookup fee for private fiber-optic connections.
Because the Helios was so big and unwieldy, the fleet would be based in a place like Hawaii where the weather was mild and the winds were light. After takeoff, the planes would slowly climb to altitude and then spend days or even weeks flying to their destinations. Being made of sections, each of which was capable of flying independently, the Helios wing performed less like a single structure than a flight of planes in line-abreast formation. In turbulence it flexed and rippled rather than broke. It rode the wind the way an inflatable air mattress rides the incoming surf.
Whether such a plane could ever replace land-based cell phone technology or rapidly improving low-earth-orbit satellite communication systems was a question whose answer was literally up in the air. But the fact that such a plane had been designed to fly autonomously for six months at a time entirely on solar power (backed up by fuel cells at night) was both a marvel in itself and a tribute to the vision of its designers.
The Helios had its unplanned origins in the efforts of a small group of largely unknown southern California modelers, builders and visionaries, working independently on their own whims, hobbies and obsessions over more than four decades. Back in the summer of 1976 a then-unknown meteorologist and businessman named Paul MacCready pulled some of them together to spend what he thought would be a few weekends building a man-powered plane to try to win an aeronautical engineering prize that had gone unclaimed for the previous seventeen years. Although that prize proved surprisingly difficult to win, ultimately taking this group nearly a year inspite of MacCready's radically different approach, that first success led quickly to an even greater one: a man-powered plane that flew across the English Channel in June of 1979. MacCready soon followed that with a solar-powered plane that flew from Paris to London; an 18-foot flying model of a pterodactyl that flew under its own power for a Smithsonian-sponsored IMAX film in January 1986; a solar-powered car that won a race across Australia in July of 1987; and the still-in-development Helios "eternal" plane.
As MacCready's growing company proved itself capable of carrying out these increasingly difficult projects without his constant oversight, MacCready increasingly began to divorce himself from the company to follow his own sometimes highly eccentric interests, such as strap-on leg braces (called "Technalegs") that would, he said, enable athletes to run 90-minute marathons and 3-minute miles. Within his own company he became an increasingly enigmatic figure, showing up not so much to talk business as to focus on technical details, find just the right size of motor or scrounge for spare parts. He worked on all sorts of ideas: pocket gyms; ornithopters (flapping-wing planes); remote-controlled, battery-powered, camera-equipped model planes; cars with legs; battery-assisted bikes; Pogo Stick-powered boats; robotic cockroaches and, for an educational project, a rodent-powered model plane.
The funny thing was, the cutting-edge planes and vehicles that made MacCready an internationally famous figure, hailed for his genius and creativity, were, with the exception of the Helios, not so much practical machines as concrete metaphors for a personal philosophy that he called "doing more with much less." Although this wasn't a notion original to him, MacCready had become the most visible spokesman for a kind of philosophical yearning that had been around as long as man himself: an innate attraction to efficiency.
When I was younger I had a bedtime fantasy: Before I fell asleep in my cozy bed I pictured myself gliding through the frozen north woods at night in an electric-powered snowmobile of my own design. Under a bubble canopy, I was warm and comfortable in a leather-padded reclining seat. As Bach or Vivaldi played softly on my stereo speakers, my instrument panel glowed a gentle green and the front skis quietly hissed through the snow. While I threaded my way slowly and silently through snow-covered trees, miles from civilization or the hope of outside aid, my cozy and efficient little machine kept me safe and warm even as I was enveloped by the stark beauty of the frozen woods and the icy indifference of the eternal stars.
I have no idea what a psychiatrist might make of my dream, but the desire to use low-powered technology to get closer to nature is hardly a unique one. Many people passionately prefer canoes to motorboats, bicycles to motorcycles and skis to snowmobiles. They aren't deliberately obstinate or hostile to technology, and their preferences aren't necessarily related to fears of global warming, ozone holes or a shrinking oil supply. Such people are trying not so much to save the world as be fully a part of it. They aren't driven by politics but rather by an inner sense that some kinds of efficiency just feel natural and right.
In some quarters, efficiency has a terrible reputation, conjuring up images of relentless assembly lines, aesthetically unconscious engineers and an ugly, antihuman worldview, lacking compassion, sensitivity or soul. But there is reason to believe that there is a moral component to efficiency, and that the yearning for it can bring out the best in human beings, not the worst, and that the idea of efficiency is not only some horrible construct imposed on us by technology or profit-obsessed corporations, but actually something that is embedded in our genes and thus one of our most enduringly human traits.
Certainly it appears to be present in the genes of some other species. As MacCready himself has noted, nature doesn't tolerate failed experiments. Mistakes get culled in a single generation-the misfits leave no progeny. On the other hand, supremely efficient species, such as the wandering albatross, can survive quite nicely in hostile environments like Roaring Forties, an almost-mythic world of gale-force winds and towering waves, nearly unimpeded by the presence of land, in the far South Atlantic and Pacific. Such fierce storms sweep over the albatross rookeries that the chicks survive only by clinging to their nests with beaks and feet, while the adults ride out the storms over the ocean in the air. Far from suffering in the wind and waves, they use their tapering 11-foot wings to extract energy from wind gradients (sharp variations in velocity with altitude). By shuttling back and forth in the wind gradient an albatross can stay aloft all day virtually without flapping its wings at all. "Once it gets to ten meters," observes MacCready, "its work is done for the day." A smaller relation, the black-footed albatross, routinely shuttles back and forth between Hawaii and the waters off San Francisco in search of food for its young, sleeping on the wing.
It's not just birds who operate efficiently. John Lighton, a Nevada entomologist who has done pioneering work studying the metabolism of insects, says there is a good reason ants are so ubiquitous: for them, the cost of walking is very low. Even so, harvester ants seeking food never venture more than about a hundred yards from the nest, instinctively realizing that beyond this point it takes more energy to get the food home than they get out of it.
Nowadays, when virtually anyone, including the old, obese, lame or pregnant, can get on an airplane and fly nonstop from Los Angeles to London, it's easy to forget that for the first 2.5 million years of human existence, man walked where he needed to go, and for much of that time, walking was the most efficient way-and often the only way-to get anywhere. Humans walked out of Africa, into Europe, across Asia, and over the Bering Strait down through North America to the very tip of South America. As biologist Bernd Heinrich explains in Racing the Antelope, early man was an "endurance predator." While many animals had better physiology for running, such as longer, leaner legs or proportionally larger hearts, few animals had man's hypertrophied sweating response, which gave him far superior endurance in midday hunts on the African savannas.
Because early man (a descendant of what Heinrich calls "bipedal savanna hunting apes" from 6 million B.C.) was highly mobile, he was able easily to move from Africa to the northern European steppes to prey on the large herds of caribou, bison and woolly mammoths. Before the climate warmed up at the end of the last ice age, causing the big northern herds to disappear and forcing man to switch to agriculture, humans lived primarily off protein. They had strength and stamina. The hunting territory of a band of prehistoric men was 500 to 1,500 square miles, far larger than that of any other primate and the same size as that of wolf packs, often considered the widest-ranging land predator.
On the chase, all of man's advantages came into play: his sweat glands kept him cool; the hair on his head protected him from the heat of the sun; his erect, two-legged stance enabled him to keep his prey in sight; and his superior intelligence enabled him to envision his ultimate success, even when his prey had disappeared over the next rise. "Other things being equal, those hunters who had the most love of nature would be the ones who sought all of its allures," writes Heinrich. "They were the ones who persisted the longest on the trail. They derived pleasure from being out, exploring, and traveling afar. When they felt fatigue and pain, they did not stop, because their dream carried them still forward. They were our ancestors."
As a superpredator, man was unsurpassed. When it came to calories expended per pound of body weight per mile, a man on foot was fifty times more efficient than a mouse, five times more efficient than a rabbit, twice as efficient as a dog, almost as efficient as a horse and half as efficient as a salmon. When the Navajos wanted an unblemished deer hide for religious ceremonies, Heinrich writes, they chased a deer until it fell from exhaustion, then throttled it with their hands.
Over the eons the genes of the most efficient superpredators were passed down to their descendants, which may explain why their yearnings, passions and, yes, appreciation for efficiency still flow through the veins of humans today. It may also be why so many people instinctively understand the aesthetic and practical advantages of living off the amount of energy the sun gives each of us every day, rather than, as MacCready says, always drawing down the principal-using up fossil fuel, "the stored energy of sunlight captured millions of years ago."
Some scientists have such a visceral distaste for scientific inelegance that they fret and stew over a problem until they end up making a major discovery. The young Albert Einstein, for instance, was so offended at the inability of electromagnetic field theory to explain the dynamo (an electrical generator) satisfactorily that he ended up totally altering our conception of space and time. As science writer Tim Ferris notes in Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Einstein wrote his initial paper on relativity ("On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies") in part to remedy what he regarded as an aesthetic aberration. Quoting the American historian Henry Adams, Ferris points out that at the beginning of the twentieth century, dynamos weren't just another technology but a "moral force" and a "symbol of infinity." Although dynamos were changing the world right in front of Einstein's eyes (his father and uncle had built them in their back yard), no one, including Albert, fully understood how they worked. Ferris writes,
Under existing theory, the moving field was to be explained according to one set of rules if viewed from the perspective of a dynamo's rotating magnet, and another if viewed from the stationary electrical coil.... It bothered Einstein as unaesthetic. "The thought that one is dealing here with two fundamentally different cases was for me unbearable," he recalled.
Excerpted from More with Less by Paul Ciotti Copyright © 2003 by Paul Ciotti. Excerpted by permission.
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|List of Illustrations|
|1||From Rodent-Powered Aircraft to Stratospheric Satellites||1|
|2||The Moral Case for Efficiency||5|
|3||Alpha Males and the Twilight Club||10|
|4||The Case against Elegant Engineering||15|
|5||From King Bladud to the Wright Bothers||17|
|7||The Contest at St. Yan||33|
|9||Man's Innate Desire to Fly||44|
|10||Hang-Gliding in Southern California||47|
|11||The Earth-Flip Hypothesis||53|
|12||The Otto Lilienthal Meet||61|
|13||Taras Kiceniuk and Icarus Ground Effect I||67|
|14||How Henry Kremer Changed Paul MacCready's Life||70|
|16||A Human Test Stand||82|
|17||Tales of the Mojave||86|
|18||The Shafter Connection||89|
|19||Reinventing the Wright Brothers||92|
|20||A Turn for the Better||95|
|21||The Case for Apparent Altruism||102|
|22||The Channel Crossing||106|
|23||Vikings versus the Emerald Isle||109|
|24||Why the British Didn't Win||118|
|25||Soft Energy and Lissaman's Broken Heart||120|
|26||How the Oil Crisis Changed the Country||122|
|27||Bob Boucher and the Eternal Plane||126|
|28||From Pointoise to "a Right Proper Piss-up"||135|
|29||"A Big Damn Bird Came Out of the Sky"||148|
|30||Biking Through the Gene Pool||160|
|31||Solar Deluge on the Bitumen||171|
|32||Electric Cars and Mental Blocks||179|
|33||Day of the Stratospheric Satellite||184|
|34||The Engineer, the Hunter and the Bear||190|
|35||Tao of the Carbon Dragon||195|
|36||Saving the World 10 Percent at a Time||202|
|37||Doctoral Thesis Immortality||210|
|39||Why Blind People Don't Sky Dive||216|
|40||The Johnny Appleseed of Ornithopters||225|