My friend Joe Merlo tells me he was 5 years old the day Marconi invented the wireless radio. The Merlo family lived in Italy, and Joe remembers his father reading the news in the evening paper, then taking a long slow walk by the sea to stare at the waves.
That's how I felt last week after learning that B. Stanley Pons at the University of Utah and his colleague Martin Fleischmann may have resolved the riddle of safe, nuclear fusion.The jury is still out on the results, of course. But my heart (which, I agree, isn't a great scientific tool) tells me it's all true.
The fact the discovery came from an odd, inexpensive little experiment performed in a basement lab sounds right to me. It's the way great discoveries happen.
Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, for instance, when some mold from an orange he had in his lab accidently blew into the dish of bacteria he was studying.
Bell came up with the telephone while tinkering with ways to make language visible for the deaf.
My favorite example is Einstein, however. He discovered molecular attraction while walking by the sea. He noticed that his feet sank into the sand when they were completely submerged, and also sank when the sand was totally dry. But his feet stayed on top of damp sand.
Bingo. The law of molecular attraction.
Yet more than the "rightness" of the way Pons and Fleischmann made their discovery, the storyteller in me "knows" it has to be true. It's just too good a story not to be:
Here we are, living in what many see as the 11th hour of the world. The ozone layer is in trouble, pollution is ruining the environment, our fossil fuel supply is in jeopardy. Billions of dollars are being spent by large institutions to search for answers. Then, just before the clock strikes midnight, two humble scientists concoct an experiment funded from their own pockets and come up with a breathtaking answer.
The writer in me sees the story as a parallel to another time, a time when the world was also at its 11th hour waiting to be saved. And while everyone waited for the regal king to enter in his glory and make things right, a baby was born without fanfare in a faraway stable.
I know I'm not old enough to get away with too much pontificating about the way the world works. A man has to be 60 or so before people really let him speak his mind, but it seems to me the greatest miracles are almost always very small miracles. The decisions we make, those that make us who we are, are small decisions. We do what we do, think what we think because of decisions made on the spur of the moment, or made years ago when we were young and impulsive.
The greatest moments in history are the small, quiet moments; moments away from the madding crowd.
"We cannot do big things," Mother Teresa says, "we can only do small things, with love."
As for my friend Joe Merlo, he tells me his father had enough foresight to save the newspaper on the day Marconi made his great discovery.
Come by my apartment and you'll see two copies of the March 24, 1989, Deseret News that I've carefully preserved in plastic bags.