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Projectiles (Public Radio Commentary)

January 27, 2004

A public radio commentary

As I watched the latest Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King, I marvelled at the catapults used by the dark forces to attack a great walled city. It was genius of Tolkien to use these devices, because they reflect in many ways the essence of what it means to be human. That may seem odd, but the the technology of accurate throwing separates humankind from the rest of the animal kingdom.

This may sound farfetched, but at least one historian, Alfred Crosby, claims that it is one of three traits that define humans. They are bipedalism, walking on two feet; throwing things; and controlling fire.

You see, walking on two feet is in many ways a disadvantage. For example, we cannot out run our prey -- how many four-legged animals can you outrun? Nor, does it make us very steady on our feet - when is the last time you saw a four-legged animal fall over? Not often.. To hit a rabbit, say, which is twelve feet away, requires use to make a motion within 1/100th of a second. That's some precise calculating by our brains.

So, not surprisingly throwing things became the earliest technology. we started with rocks, then moved to making spears. There a rock was sharpened and attached to the end of a wooden rod. Next, came the bow and arrow, which allowed us to combine throwing stuff with our other defining trait, controlling fire.

The Greeks, for instance, used flaming arrows. That led in turn to Greek Fire - a napalm-like substance that could be tossed in small amounts, like a grenade, or in tubs using trebuchets. There is an argument to be made that the controlled use of fire and the ability to throw is what made civilizations spread.

For instance, the Byzantines used Greek Fire with great success. They built into their ships metal statutes of ferocious lions, then inserted flexible hoses in the lions' mouths from which they pumped the Greek Fire.

The next step in throwing things was to use fire to help us throw farther. The western world acquired gun powder from the Chinese, and this, of course, increased our ability to throw weapons hundreds of miles. Over the course of thousands of years, it led to the terrible - the Nazi's V-2 missiles and the atomic bomb - and to the miraculous - landing a man on the moon

So, in sum, throwing things represents our greatest fears - perhaps missiles will some day be tossed around the globe that will wipe all of us out; and it also reflects our greatest hope as a species. Maybe these rockets and space probes that we launch into the sky will seed the galaxy with human beings, and propagate us forever - even as we blow up the globe.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises