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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

The outer limits of human endeavor

We make progress by relentlessly pushing past the boundaries of our knowledge

A long queue of mountain climbers line a

A long queue of mountain climbers line a path on Mount Everest just below camp four, in Nepal on May 22, 2019. Photo Credit: AP/Rizza Alee

You might have read last week about Joshua Farahzad, a 19-year-old college student from Stony Brook, who led a bunch of like-minded science and math-oriented peers on a mission to build a rocket from scratch and launch it into space.

And so they did.

The team, which grew to more than 40 students from around the country, called itself Operation Space, raised $100,000, worked through myriad problems, and gathered in the New Mexico desert where it sent its first rocket 100,000 feet into the air. That’s more than three times the height of Mount Everest.

By any measure, these kids are worth applauding. It takes a certain audacity to think you can launch a rocket into space. But that’s what we humans do.

We push limits. More correctly, we push past our limits. And in that endeavor, we discover progress.

Sometimes the limits are mundane, like the physical limits of height, distance, speed or time. Sometimes they are profound, like the limits of our imagination.

The history of science and medicine is the relentless exercise of pushing against the limits of our knowledge, and then beyond them. We were reminded of that last week with the gathering at the Cradle of Aviation Museum of the Apollo astronauts and Grumman workers who joined forces 50 years ago to put mankind on the moon.

Sometimes, science has limits placed on it. That also happened last week when President Donald Trump announced a ban at the National Institutes of Health on medical research that uses fetal tissue from aborted fetuses.

Regardless of one’s position regarding abortion, the move will do nothing to reduce abortions; surely no woman decided to get one so that the fetal tissue could be donated to science. But fetal tissue has been critical in research for cures for cancer, HIV, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. So the ban becomes another limit.

Mankind has long understood, and rebelled against, the nature of limits.

The great German writer Goethe set the template years ago when he wrote, “The human mind will not be confined to any limits.”

Among those who echoed that were physicist Albert Einstein, martial arts film star Bruce Lee, former President Ronald Reagan, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, all of whom in their own ways lived by that creed.

Basketball legend Michael Jordan compared limits to fear in that both often are just an illusion, appropriate for a man who routinely busted through the limit we mortals call gravity.

But there is a flip side to limits. Some are simply not meant to be broken, something underscored by Clint Eastwood’s film character Dirty Harry, who noted, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

He might have been talking about the climbing season that ended recently on Mount Everest. More than 825 people, a record, reached the summit. And 11 died, some from consequences of getting stuck in the altitudinous traffic jam. Some of the congestion was created by inexperienced climbers who had no business being there, experts said. Their major qualification seemed to be the ability to pay for a permit and a guide team to push-pull them to the top. Hence the confounding photos of scores of climbers crammed close on a single rope inching their way upward.

There is nobility in the effort to break through limits. But sometimes there is sadness, sometimes exhilaration.

Jeopardy champion James Holzhauer erased limits. The eight national spelling bee winners obliterated theirs. The veterans at D-Day celebrations worldwide confirmed the boundless limits of courage and selflessness.

We all have limits.

Go ahead. Bust a few.

 Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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