Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The way of Icarus

with 2 comments

Icarus by Henri Matisse

In ancient days two aviators procured to themselves wings. Daedalus flew safely through the middle air across the sea, and was duly honored on his landing. Young Icarus soared upwards towards the sun until the wax which bound his wings melted, and his flight ended in fiasco. In weighing their achievements perhaps there is something to be said for Icarus. The classic authorities tell us that he was only “doing a stunt,” but I prefer to think of him as the man who certainly brought to light a structural defect in the flying machines of his day.

So, too, in science. Cautious Daedalus will apply his theories where he feels most confident they will safely go; but by his excess of caution their hidden weaknesses cannot be brought to light. Icarus will strain his theories to the breaking point until the weak joints gape. For a spectacular stunt? Perhaps partly; he is often very human. But if he is not yet destined to reach the sun and solve for all time the riddle of its constitution, yet he may hope to learn from his journey some hints to build a better machine.

Arthur Eddington

Written by nevalalee

April 19, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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  1. I love your posts. This one however tickled my BS meter. Perhaps Daedalus, in understanding the limits of his invention at the time, and needing to get out of there realized it was more important to get home safely than show flaws of a flying machine. I’ll bet he got home and built a better set of wings. Would Mr. Eddington have advocated, for example, ramming a car into a wall to prove the defects of the car with a live person inside, instead of getting groceries?

    As Mark Twain reportedly said: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Icarus never made it to 21.

    My response is a little tongue-and-cheek given Eddington’s contributions to 20th Century science.

    Thanks again for all your posts


    April 19, 2015 at 7:54 am

  2. Fair point, but I think it’s a useful reminder—if only as a metaphor—for those of us, like me, who tend to be more like Daedalus: cautious, moderate, and sticklers for the rules. It doesn’t hurt if we’re occasionally a bit more like Icarus in our work, as long as it won’t actually get us killed. Thanks for reading!


    April 19, 2015 at 9:26 am

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