Book review: ‘The Explorer Gene,’ by Tom Cheshire
August 23, 2014
The desire to win and to achieve greatness are universal human traits, and success comes to people in different measures. Some, of course, actively seek adventure, while there are those who are happy to allow others to head off into the wild blue while they keep hearth and home warm. Motivation for thrill-seekers also comes in many guises, from boredom to bragging rights to, as author Tom Cheshire believes, a genetic predisposition for excitement or, as he describes it, “novelty seeking tendencies” reflected in a unique genetic sequencing, which governs the release of dopamine.
In his engaging new book, “The Explorer Gene,” Cheshire uses the examples of the legendary Piccard family to highlight the premise that the spirit of adventure runs deeply through generations of some families. This theory, supported by filmmaker and deep-sea explorer James Cameron in the book’s foreword, can be defined through “this requirement to see for oneself — to bear witness, personally, to the unknown, to see that which has never been seen before by human eyes.”
This spirit for adventure has certainly defined the story of mankind, as any scholar of history will note; the first hominids, even, had to exhibit a sense of daring and a willingness to step into the unknown as they ventured farther away from their homes in the heart of Africa. For modern humans, one need look no further than the 20th century and the inspiring novels of Jules Verne, who energized an entire generation of bold individuals who yearned to go higher, deeper and farther.
Cheshire introduces the Piccard phenomenon with the first notable member of the famous family — August Piccard, who charmed a generation to the extent that Belgian cartoonist Herge saw the Swiss scientist as a template for the endearing Professor Calculus of his much loved “The Adventures of Tin Tin” comics. Just as with the fictional character, August Piccard was the personification of the absent-minded scientist, intent only on his imaginings and inventions. Rubbing shoulders with the biggies — Einstein, Curie and Schrodiger, among others — Piccard found support among his contemporaries for his schemes, the highlight of which was a quest to reach the stratosphere in a balloon.
For this particular Piccard, the motivation was never the thrill or the fame; it was always the science. He wanted to fly higher to better study cosmic rays, which were his specific obsession. In his account, Cheshire incorporates all the drama and the tense development that accompanied such a record-setting accomplishment, including the many failures and mishaps that are a part of any scientific experiment. Attentive to the technical details of the science of the time, Cheshire builds a narrative so rich, engaging and fantastical, it would have made Professor Calculus proud.
To highlight the premise of his book, the author continues forward through time to August Piccard’s son, Jacques, who followed along the road of science and discovery paved by his father, but the son did not choose the heavens as his domain. His realm of choice was more earthly — in fact, it was much, much deeper down — to the deepest point in the Pacific Ocean, the Marianas Trench. For Jacques, there was never a debate about following in his illustrious father’s footsteps. He had grown up marveling at the magic that surrounded August Piccard’s brilliant mind, and he benefited from his father’s engineering prowess, for it had originally been August Piccard’s idea to follow his high-flying adventure with one to the deep sea.
The pages of “The Explorer Gene” are filled with the trials and errors of scientific discovery, as father and son battle the intense conditions of the sea and the choking restrictions of international bureaucracies to make the ultimate dive to the ocean floor.
To complete the family trifecta, Cheshire introduces the last of the acclaimed family’s inventive and daring sons, Bertrand Piccard, whose spirit for adventures takes him back to his grandfather’s roots, where it all started — the sky. His dream is to circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon, taking the family’s name into the heavens once more. And with so many firsts now claimed and set down in the history books, Bertrand Piccard has chosen a new endeavor, in keeping with the pioneering ethos but more in line with 21st century humanity’s sense of unity with the planet and its survival. He has undertaken a project to design and fly a solar-powered airplane around the world. The flight is set for sometime in 2015.
Cheshire lets the Piccard grandson leave the reader with the message that “now the pioneering spirit should be more about the quality of life, (and) better governance of this planet.” Worthy trailblazing, indeed.
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