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Through the eyes of a child
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Forsyth County News
It is so easy to take things for granted. Every now and then it’s good to get a reminder that puts things back into perspective.

Last week I was sitting on a plane. I prefer window seats. The clouds turn the skies into a magical tableau. Sometimes you get a spectacular sunset, and even the least attractive parts of the world down below look neat and pristine from 30,000 feet up.

The airplane window provides a wonderful contrast with an earth-bound perspective. As a result, I’m probably more sensitive than most to the wonders of air travel. But I long ago stopped thinking about the miracle of flying per se.

Directly behind me was young girl — about 4 years old — sitting next to a man who I later learned was her grandfather. It was her first time on an airplane. She was excited, and her happy chatter entertained everyone within earshot.

As the plane taxied out she was clearly entranced by the other aircraft on the tarmac, the baggage handlers at work and, then, by the other planes landing and taking off. Then it was our turn.

With squeals of delight, she realized that we were actually up in the air. Wonder of wonders, we were flying like birds.

She kept up the happy commentary throughout the flight. It was adorable, but it also made everyone else take time from their books, iPods and computers to realize that we were winging through the air.

Then she spotted another plane, flying a parallel course for a while. She could obtain a perspective of what we were doing, flying so high, with the sun reflecting off the fuselage, and all the people inside. And when we started down the landing held as much excitement for her as did the take-off.

Most of us now accept the miracle of flight as the “normal” state of affairs. Nothing special.

It’s easy to understand the physics that allows a commercial plane to fly at close to sonic speeds, 6 miles up in the air, carrying tons of passengers and baggage. But seeing it through the eyes of this 4-year old made me stop and realize how far we have come. It’s easy to forget that, for thousands of years, manned flight was “impossible.”

Only a few visionaries even considered its possibilities. And it has only been a century (a short time in the history of mankind) that we have not been tied to the earth’s surface. Even then, suggesting today’s giant jet airliners to the crowd who witnessed the successful flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk would probably have invoked incredulity and laughter.

When we arrived at our destination, I rented a car and we started driving. I didn’t need directions. I had a GPS, and all I had to do was plug in an address and follow instructions.

All the way a map unfolded, showing the route, and a voice provided instructions on forthcoming turns. The GPS told me the time I would arrive (calculating the speed limits on all the roads I would travel). It indicated those speed limits on each road.

Again, although a newer technology, most of us accept this as the norm. We forget that there is a system of satellites circling the earth, hundreds of miles up, communicating with that little device in my car, coordinating with the car’s location, speed and direction.

Just as amazing, in that little device is a detailed map of almost every road and major feature in the United States, along with all the information on stores, restaurants, etc. — an enormous amount of information. And all of this is being coordinated with the satellite readings in real time. What a wonderful world of technology surrounds us.

I sit here in the airport writing this on my computer, another device that, by now, most people take for granted. Millions and billions of electrons are moving around, doing my bidding to produce this document. The amount of data and the size of programs that can be squeezed into tiny spaces are incredible.

Yet as I type, I normally don’t think of what it took in the evolution of science and technology to get us to this stage. And most people, particularly the young, are now so imbued with the capabilities that they too just assume it to be the norm, a norm that has only existed with humanity for a few decades.

When I am through, I will press a button, and given the wi-fi system here, my message will be magically transmitted hundreds or thousands of miles — arriving in intelligible form (assuming I wrote intelligibly).

The miracles of radio, of the Internet and of computer chips have all come together to make this happen. We forget, because most of us lack the lengthy personal perspective, how recent all of these developments are. In particular, 20-year-olds who have lived with this technology for all of their lives will have difficulty putting it in the perspective of the span of man’s existence and toil on earth.

While sitting in the airport, I noticed a group of tourists using a cell phone to take a group photo, and within seconds, that photo probably appeared somewhere on the other side of the globe.

During World War II, it could have been months before a soldier was able to have contact his with family, and then usually by receiving a letter that may itself have been months old.

Recently, our grandson Matt was able to call us while he was in the field in Iraq and reach us with a signal that was instantaneous, clear and also reassuring.

The world has changed dramatically, at least with respect to technology. It’s easy to forget how many years — no, centuries — of thinking, exploration and effort have gone into making this happen. And it continues, it would seem, at an accelerating pace.

There are wonders all around us, if we only take a minute to stop, look and listen. The excitement of a 4-year-old can make that happen ... “out of the mouths of babes.”

For all the progress we have made with technology, we seem to have lagged dramatically with respect to human behavior and interaction. One might hope that the two would go hand in hand, and we would be able to apply these wondrous advances in technology to deal with many of the human problems we face. It hasn’t happened, at least not to the extent it could and should. This is the big challenge that we face today.

Perhaps thinking more about the technologies and benefits we have achieved will raise sensitivity to the full potential of what we might accomplish. We need to apply similar thinking to the human problems that face the world and how to apply these technologies to make the world a better and a happier place.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at melcopen@hotmail.com.