Saturday, 4 September 2010

Why do they do it?

Appearing on the Litopia After Dark internet radio panel show last night, I quite surprised myself how worked up I got about the futile nature of the glory given to people doing stupid things. There is something very sad about the obsession with doing things because they stretch human beings to the limit. This is what leads to attempts to trek across the North or South Pole on foot, or to climb Everest without oxygen. To any sensible onlooker, it’s stupidity. There is no scientific benefit. There is no discovery. It’s little more than risky posturing.

The ultimate example of this madness is that awards have already been funded for the first person to climb Mount Olympus on Mars, to cross the Martian poles 'without airborne support or resupply' and to descend the vast Valles Marineris on Mars 'using no technological support other than that required for life support and basic mountaineering.' Leaving aside the total strangeness of these challenges (for example, what airborne support do they have in mind?  There is no air on Mars), this is Boy's Own stuff that now seems hugely dated - it is celebrating vast effort for no benefit whatsoever. You might as well have an award for the first person to hop all the way round the Moon, or the first person to eat a whole asteroid (it's possible in very small pieces) - these are challenges that should inspire a huge 'so what?'

Those who design great treks across vast wastes would laugh at a challenge of standing on one foot for as long as you can, or hopping around Manhattan with a paper bag over your head – yet each has exactly the same benefit: it tests the limit of human endurance. If that doesn't present enough danger, stand on one foot as long as you can on the edge of the roof of a 20 storey building. We should see these 'great feats' for what they are. A way of showing off that has no more value than standing on one foot.

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