Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 1: Flight
This is the sky, the science guy says.
I know what you’re saying, you’re saying there’s nothing there, the science guy says you say.
What do you mean there’s nothing there? The science guy is incredulous. You are an idiot.
There’s enough to fly on.
Not too unlike a junebug, the jet takes to the sky, lifting from the runway in a flurry of sound. It is not enough, never feels like enough, but science dictates: there’s enough. You will be okay. Breathe deep now, shut your eyes, find a word and turn it to mantra. Mutter the word until you’ve reached cruising. Don’t worry about the other passengers—this fear is man-made, not uncommon, reliable. Besides, it will take a lot for your voice to rise above the engine whine, the others’ mutters, the palpable unspoken shared unease. Find a mantra, start patterning your heartbeats. There’s enough to fly on. Enough. Enough. Enough.
Daniel Bernoulli’s father is ashamed. Not of his son, though to his son there is little if any difference. Daniel’s father is ashamed of himself, feels publicly derided, understands now where he stands. At the Paris Academy, the pair of Bernoullis—one thirty-four years old, the other his father—both receive the Grand Prize for their separate, unconnected experiments. Share the prize? Surely a mistake has been made—he is my son. The elder Bernoulli is baffled. Wants to say, What of my import? My history in the field? but says nothing, looks instead at the boy beside him, thinks only: You. Son.
No longer: Daniel’s father races home and shutters it all. Writes Daniel a formal letter, unfatherly and yet just like the only father Daniel’s ever known. The letter says, in so few words, Don’t bother coming home.
Daniel’s father is not ashamed; he is fearful. What does legacy mean to a science guy? He returns from the Academy, hunkers down, and reevaluates. Surely a mistake. Soon, he has forgotten how to speak to Daniel, forgotten the word son altogether.
The science guy says, Airplanes are held up by something we can’t see. What can he know of unseen pressure? What of his father? What of his son?
Consider the following, the science guy says. You….me….air….everything is made of molecules.
It’s this simple: a distillation of all that we know, all that’s enough. Where lies the difference between us? Between us and air? Where the innumerable questions between?
Mid-flight, the realization—the understanding—is equal parts salve and torment. Spend the airborne miles breaking the plane into tiny bits in your mind. Wonder how many molecules each piece becomes. Wonder how many make up your skeleton, your muscle, your skin and spazzing brain. How many molecules you were before birth, how many just after, blinded briefly then ecstatic. The science guy says flight’s all math and science: calculate the bits you’re made of, the bits of this ungodly bird, compare and contrast. Graph each, struggle to recall slant’s ancient equation. Struggle for the face of any of your math teachers. Struggle to stay awake. Everything is made of molecules. Remind yourself: everything. That’s all there is. Try to net this as a positive.
The science guy says, Some people are afraid that airplanes can’t fly. Says, I guess because the air they fly through is invisible.
Well so’s the air we breathe, for crying out loud. The science guy is impatient. With you, your misunderstandings of the mechanics of the world, your innate inability to catch up, to sit still, to achieve the potential he knows you know he sees within you. The science guy is sure you are a fool, feels something like petulance masked barely as false sympathy. The science guy is standing on the upper level walkway overlooking the main floor of the National Air and Space Museum, close enough to the Lincoln Memorial, the preserved and archived Constitution, the Hope Diamond for crying out loud, to walk to each within the hour. The science guy, he hasn’t got time for this.
I mean, it’s just air. The science guy inhales deeply, exhales, smiles in an imitation of warmth.
Bryan Allen is airborne on a bicycle. He sits just barely comfortable in the Gossamer Albatross, a gross amalgamation of a ten-speed and a prop plane, a wing-saddled Schwinn, five feet above the English Channel. He is dehydrated, his altimeter’s crapped out, the headwinds are devastating, his legs and arms are so cramped up they feel as though steel rods have been slipped into their bones. It is the summer of 1979, the disco decade nearly turning, and Bryan Allen means to fly across, all the way, but the French coast is still unseen. He has an approximation of the distance left, but no real number, no one to update him, encourage him, remind him what the hell the point is.
The sound of the Zodiac, his trailing boat of safety and precaution, seems to near. He turns his head enough to see that they are going to give up, to pull ahead of him and hook the Albatross and ferry him the rest of the way. It feels right. Bryan Allen can hardly be upset; he can hardly think at all.
Though as he rises a little higher to allow the Zodiac room to maneuver underneath, the headwinds seem to turn off completely. Like a bathtub overfilling with water, then zip, the faucet dries up. He likes it up here, just a couple feet higher, where he isn’t battling the sky, has only his own aching muscles and self-determination to confront. When his boat is ready for him to come down, to hook on, give up, he refuses, signals instead for more time. Without the wind, everything else becomes easier. He knows now that he can do this. He will make it. Suddenly, there’s enough to fly on.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.
Original Artwork by Lena Moses Schmitt.