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The Playfulness Of Invention

Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont's 14-bis biplane takes off from a French field in 1906.
Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont's 14-bis biplane takes off from a French field in 1906.

It's Ash Wednesday, and while we freeze up here in New England, the people of Brazil are picking up the mess after four days of rampage and decadent partying during their legendary Carnival celebrations. But even if Carnival's reputation is due to the wild dancing, singing and flirting, it is also a time to open up and be what you want but can't — or are afraid — to be. It's a celebration of the imagination and of personal freedom, a marriage of the sacred and the profane.

When I was growing up in Rio, I used to spend summer vacations with my grandparents in their house in the mountains. The town's name is Teresópolis, "Teresa's City," named after Thereza Cristina, Brazil's last empress, wife of Emperor Pedro II. At the time, early to late '60s, to get to Teresópolis was quite an adventure. The town is nested in the heart of the fabulous Serra dos Órgãos, a dramatic sequence of high granite peaks carved in exquisite shapes by hundreds of millions of years of erosion.

My father's Volkswagen Beetle (it looked just like Herbie from the The Love Bug) could hardly make it, huffing and puffing as it climbed the very steep hills. I couldn't care less and, in fact, wanted the climb to take as long as possible. This way, I could look out the window, and follow the amazing change in scenery from Copacabana's urban chaos to the sublime mountains, covered here and there by explosive tufts of Atlantic forest.

As any parent knows, a child's sense of time is quite different: slow, undirected, and self-serving. Forget deadlines and commitments; I want to play with this toy now.

We used to stop halfway to eat corn and drink sugar cane juice, while watching the sloths on the trees, living their lives in slow motion. Once in a while, a raucous band of toucans would fly by. To my young eyes, the transition from city to mountains, from buildings to the majestic peaks, from potted plants to wild orchids and bromeliads, was nothing short of magical.

I knew that to live in the city meant giving up on nature. The little that we had of it in the city had to be imprisoned or compromised: birds in cages, trees strangled by cement, vultures and pigeons instead of toucans and parrots. My building's doorman, an immigrant from a poor region in Brazil's northeast, once told me that birds sung better when blinded. Maybe they did, but it was a sad, melancholy song, that constantly reminded me of how self-serving man could be.

We always spent Carnival in the mountains. My family traded the city's heat and chaos for the more peaceful celebrations in Teresópolis. We used to go to the balls in the matinees, dressed as pirates and cowboys, dancing and singing until our legs ached. The party was a celebration of the imagination, each of us a hero or a fiend or a magical creature; Halloween without the gore.

To grow up is to lose the ability to imagine that what is imagined is real. We erect walls between reality and imagination, become sensible and forget to keep the mind open to contemplate the impossible. This is what children do so well and we adults can't, or have a hard time doing, as we try to balance the playful with the reasonable.

It is in times like this that I understand why I became a scientist, even if the link wasn't obvious to me in my late teens and much less as a child. I wanted a life where the imagination is not constantly imprisoned by commonsense. It is true that a child hardly ever asks to go to a Carnival party dressed as Albert Einstein or as one of the Wright brothers. But they could; after all, one reinvented space and time, while the others taught us how we can fly. (Well, in Brazil it would be Alberto Santos-Dumont, whom we credit as the first to fly heavier-than-air machines. If you want to know more about this fascinating genius, I recommend the biography by Paul Hoffman, Wings of Madness.)

Einstein and Santos-Dumont are examples of people who refused to grow up entirely, or at least refused to build an impassible wall between reality and imagination. On the contrary, they showed us that it is possible — using our imagination — to transform reality into something apparently magical.

This is, I believe, the most endearing aspect of science, that it allows us to reinvent the world.

I could just imagine my grandfather's expression if he saw me talking on a cell phone, he in Rio and I in Teresópolis; or if he used GPS to avoid the traffic getting out of Rio; or if he looked up at the night sky and saw all these satellites up there; or if he saw pictures of distant worlds, brought to us by space telescopes.

"What a magical world we live in, huh, grandpa?" I'd say to him. And how sad that we hardly find the time to stop and enjoy it, or to note that the magic comes precisely from those who have an open gateway to their imagination, those who can be children as adults.

You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

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