The Magic of Being Alive Today
The World Around Us is Infused with an Everyday Magic That's Often Invisible to Us But That's Right There If We Want to Open Our Eyes and See It
(Art generated by private AI art creator)
It was during Saturday breakfast with my wife that I suddenly stopped and stared at something very unusual.
It was as if I was seeing it for the very first time. Its smoothly curved and gleaming surface mesmerized me for a moment.
It glittered in the early morning light as we drank our Earl Grey and talked about the wonderful things we wanted to do on our day off. All the sound drained from the room and it was just me and the teapot for a few seconds that felt like minutes. We'd bought it while living in Berlin and carried it with us around the world. Inside, at the bottom, it's discolored, having taken on layer upon layer of thousands of pots of tea, but outside it's still flawless, true to its name, stainless steel.
It was at that moment that I remembered that we live in a world of invisible magic.
I'm not talking about spells and new age chanting or wizards and witches or energy work or wish crafting. I'm talking about the everyday magic that's all around us and so commonplace that we simply take it for granted.
We don't think about the thousands of years of trial and error that went into making stainless steel. It's just a part of our life, serving us faithfully, asking for nothing, never calling attention to itself. It's clean and shiny and feels nearly indestructible. The secret ingredient is chromium. It creates a special protective shield of chromium oxide when it mixes with carbon and iron atoms of steel. That gives it that gleaming shine and its invisible barrier against stains and rust. The chromium oxide keeps the ravages of moisture away from the powerful inner core of metal and carbon, deflecting stains like a kung-fu master deflects punches and kicks.
That stain blocking power is also why stainless steel replaced ceramic sinks. Ceramic soaks up stains like paper soaks up ink, but that curved and sleek steel sink deflects everything from food, to bleach, to strawberry juice, to harsh chemicals, to ink, and more, never losing its shimmer.
Maybe you've noticed that your fork or spoon doesn't actually taste like anything? Go ahead. Put it in your mouth and see what it tastes like. Nothing, right? That's also because of that magical chromium barrier. It keeps the metal from interacting with your saliva which corrodes steel by itself. As materials scientist Mark Miodownik writes in his amazing book Stuff Matters, it means "we're one of the first generations who haven't had to taste our cutlery."
Metals of the yesterday soaked up all the little flavors from meals past, subtly distorting the flavors of everything over time, no matter how hard people scrubbed.
But it's not just the material that matters.
It's the ingenuity and the genius that went into everything we see around us.
We live in a world where people before us solved countless problems so that we don't have to solve them. Every teapot is a solved problem. So is every window, every smartphone, every car, every wooden floor, every steel and cement skyscraper, every refrigerator, every toaster, all those keys and locks, those closets you keep things in, the air conditioner keeping you cool, all those and a million more little things are solved problems. The people before us live on, infused into the very soul of the objects we touch and taste and walk on every second of our lives.
Layer upon layer, upon layer of pre-baked solutions surround us every day. We don't notice them at all. They're just a part of the tapestry of our world. Every time we call someone on our phone, or get on a bus or a train, or drive somewhere, or put on clothes and shoes, or shove a delicious morsel of food into our mouth with a stainless steel fork, we're living off the genius and ingenuity of our ancestors.
Windows of the World
Take something like windows.
We don't pay much attention to windows. Maybe because they're transparent and we look through them rather than at them and so we forget that they're there. But glass is another magical material, worth looking at instead of just through.
Windows keep out everything we don't want from the outside world, noise, bugs, wind, rain, cold, and heat but they let in what we want, glorious natural light. Even better, they only let through the beautiful parts of light, the visible spectrum, while filtering out UV light, the light that burns us and gives us cancer. That's because the electrons in the atoms deep inside the glass get charged up by the UV light and those electrons absorb the UV. But because the visual spectrum of light doesn't pack quite the same energetic punch, it doesn't charge up those electrons and so the light passes through the wide open space of the atoms, bending just a little as it comes through to us. That's also why you can't get a tan through a window, because the glass has near perfect UV protection, better than 1000 rated sunscreen.
You can thank all the thousands of years of artisans, from all over the world, for discovering the secret nature of glass that led to those windows that let in that glorious visible light.
Glass making goes back at least 6000 years, long before we ever learned how to smelt iron. The first true synthetic glass came to us from Lebanon and Mesopotamia or ancient Egypt. But old glass was impure and rarely transparent. It was cloudy and filled with bubbles that ruined its structural integrity. But gradually, through trial and error, artisans figured out how to make it transparent and more pure. The Romans industrialized it, giving us the word glass, from the Latin glesum, which probably came from the Germanic word for a transparent and lustrous substance. But it was the Venetians that turned glass making into high art in the 13th century on the island of Murano. They crafted an exceptionally clear glass called cristallo and filled it with color, making delightful stained glass, and all that glass soon found its way into windows, mirrors, ship lanterns and lenses.
(Source: Author, La Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona)
It was lenses that led to the microscope that let us see the invisible world hidden in all these structures, cracking open how they worked at deeper and deeper levels. The revelation of the hidden worlds all around us led to the germ theory of disease displacing the useless miasma theory that assumed we got sick through noxious air. That led to better and better medicine, like antibiotics and vaccines. It let us do heart surgery because now we understood how to keep the inner body from getting contaminated during surgery by the mess of tiny marauding invaders swarming around hospital floors and tables and tools.
And today we've only gotten better with glass, making safety glass for windshields in cars that shatters into billions of tiny pieces that don't go through you if you go through the window in a crash. Fibers of glass infuse the PCB boards in all your electronics. Networking masterminds helped create sublimely pure glass in fiber optic cables that's so clear that light filled with information can travel down it for thousands of kilometers in wires snaking across the ocean floor, linking far off nations together. Those cables let you look up anything at all on the web, a mind-bogglingly vast swarm of websites and servers all over the world. Just turn to Wikipedia or Amazon or a billion blogs and find the history of thousands of years just waiting to unfold.
Or take something else entirely: clean water.
Most of us take it for granted that when we turn on the tap the water is safe and won’t get us sick but it wasn’t always that way. For most of human history, water was filthy and filled with parasites like cholera bacteria that people didn’t even know were there because they couldn’t see it before microscopes. Right through the late 1800s cities were disgusting messes of disease and shit. Drinking a glass of water could and did kill. At the turn of the century the top killers were bacteria and diseases like typhoid and cholera was one of the worst, ranking at number three on top ways to die in 1850.
(A 23 year old Venetian woman before and after Cholera)
But you can thank a doctor in New Jersey, Dr Leal, for changing it. He engineered the first large scale chlorination of a public water works in 1908, just over a 100 years ago. Leal secretly built a chlorination system into the public water works. He survived a criminal trial for doing it but was subsequently vindicated by his efforts as water works around the world soon followed. Within a decade almost every major public waterworks in the US used chlorine and not long after the world’s major cities followed. He went on trial because chlorine is fatal in high doses and people couldn't imagine that a small amount would only kill bugs and have negligible effects on humans.
His pioneering work changed water from one of the top killers in the world to one that barely ranks at all anymore.
We stand on the shoulders of giants.
When you stand on a sturdy floor in a high rise, you can thank the engineers who figured out how to fix the fatal flaw of cement: it cracks.
That was a problem the Romans couldn't solve, which is why the Romans used it in domes, which press the cement together to keep the cracks under great pressure, or they poured it as floors. They didn't use it for making soaring columns and arches because they couldn't stop it from cracking and breaking down. But today, we pour concrete into molds of any shape and lace it with steel and raise floor after floor after floor, before we hide it all away with glass and more steel to make it beautiful. We can thank the genius of Joseph Monier, a French gardener, who just wanted stronger pots, for cracking the problem of cracks in cement and creating that magical combination of steel and stone that lets us build buildings as tall as the Burj Khalifa, just over half a mile high. The steel bonds with the cement and holds those tiny imperfections together, letting us stack floors, walls and columns up like layer cakes.
But really, maybe we should forget the cult of individual greatness. Monier wasn't alone. Others hit on the idea at roughly the same time because when we have all the ingredients of a great idea, new ideas spring from it like a fountain, often at the same time, all around the world, a phenomenon called multiple discovery.
We love to boil down great inventions to a single heroic inventor. We imagine that Edison "invented" the light bulb. But really he didn't. Dozens of people worked with light bulbs before him. Edison thought of himself as a great researcher, and a relentless, brute force experimenter. He tried 1000s of filaments with his team in his lab and finally made the first long lasting filament. Surprisingly, it was made of bamboo and it took light bulbs from hours of life to 6 months of life. It was a monumental discovery but one built on the backs of thousands who came before him.
Of course, sometimes it is true that one person makes all the difference and sees what nobody else ever saw. Someone comes along who puts it all together in just the right way before anyone else, like Gutenberg and the printing press or Tesla and the induction motor. Tesla had the ability to hallucinate machines in his mind, in vivid 3D detail and he could alter and work on the machines without paper. In a flash, one day, after recovering from a tremendous illness, he saw the induction motor perfectly formed in his mind and as far as we know, nobody else came up with a brushless induction motor anywhere else.
In Europe, Gutenberg seems to be the one person who saw that all the elements were there to make the printing press. Moveable type, the hand mould, the wine press. Still, before Gutenberg, came hundreds of nameless craft makers in China and Korea, and his team of engineers and all the precursor technologies that led to the printing press.
But more often than not, inventions are the work of multiple people, throughout time, slowly unraveling the mysteries of the world, asking questions, making discoveries, pushing knowledge just a little bit further until it's just right for someone or a group of people to bring it together.
As Ken Stanely, AI researcher, said on Pat O'Shaugnessy's podcast Invest Like the Best, oftentimes those people had no idea what their ideas would lead to. The countless people who probed the mysteries of electricity over the centuries, had no idea it would lead to Nikola Tesla creating the induction motor that powers the electric grid of the modern world. They just knew there was something fascinating there. They followed their interests. They refused to accept the current answers and looked deeper. They wondered, how can I really know something? How can I prove it? How can I be sure? They asked questions and then more questions, following their hearts and minds.
The folks who invented the vacuum tube weren't trying to invent computers. The same is true of the transistors that power the inner guts of the microprocessors that make possible everything from your computer, to your phone, to your car. They were just trying to harness the power of electricity for the phone company, working at the famed Bell Labs. They wanted to build a switch that didn't require a whole horde of women rapidly connecting and disconnecting cables on a board to connect calls.
All of those strings of inventions and questions and ideas feed down towards the present moment like beads on a string to the technologies you hold in your hands and sleep on and under and pass without even noticing.
When you read this article on your phone, you can thank the glassmakers of Murano and the Corning folks who crafted super hard Gorilla Glass, along with the thousands of people who probed electricity through the years, from Benjamin Franklin, to Michael Faraday, to Nicola Tesla, to Edison, and all the invisible engineers and technicians whose names we don't know. You can thank the men of Bell Labs who gave us transistors and the Bell Labs offshoot company, Intel, which gave us the first powerful commercial microchips. You can thank the operating system pioneers and UI developers. And don't forget the thousands of factories all over Asia in a massive, marvelous global supply chain, making smaller and more distinct parts, that feed larger factories that integrate those parts all down the line in over 100 countries. You can thank the massive container ships, the size of skyscrapers on their side, bringing you that phone from halfway across the world so it arrives at your door the day after you ordered it. You can thank the standardized metal box container with walls only three credit cards thick and floors that are antimicrobial, that protected the paper box with your phone as it traveled from far away.
But we don't think about any of it. We don’t think about that paper box that’s strong enough to protect the phone but easy enough to rip right open. We pick up the phone, drive to the store, take the train to see our friends, eat in a bowl that doesn't crack, while looking up anything we want through our tiny magic window on the world.
But we should. We should thank our ancestors. The people of the past never left us. Their ghosts still suffuse the very fabric of our lives.
To solve the problems of tomorrow, we're going to need more people who think like the masters of old, the craftspeople, the inventors, the discoverers, the pioneers, the experimenters, the artisans.
Too often today, we find people who have a problem for every solution. Complaining is an international pastime. People scream on social media and gnash their teeth and they blame the media and rich people and the haves and the have-nots and corporations and politicians. But they don't offer solutions. They want to smash capitalism or kill all the lefties or crush all the conservatives but they don't have a better answer, just rage and deranged conspiracies. To tackle the challenges of tomorrow, we need more thinkers and doers and inventors and less angry idiots.
No Fate But What We Make
The world is the world that we make, through our discoveries and creations and inquisitiveness.
But today we seem to have forgotten it.
We think we can solve problems through politics alone or through war and battle. Sometimes war is necessary and sometimes politicians find a way to offset distortions and disorders in the market with intelligently crafted laws. But without inventiveness and artistry, without new innovations and new solutions, no war or law will save us.
Today, we seem blind to the magic of the world. We're blind to invention and artistry. We imagine that the world will always just be better if we do nothing at all, as if the future will make itself.
Even worse, many people have grown delusional. They assume greatness is an inner trait that's our right, as if it's passed down to us through dynastic lineage or DNA. But it's not. We get no credit for what our ancestors did, no credit for yesterday. We shouldn’t just live off the glory of the people who made things with their genius. We have to pick up the tape measure and the beaker and the pen ourselves and forge our own tomorrow.
Instead, we seem to be moving towards a Black Mirror timeline where increasingly crazy and hate filled people come to power, trying to bask in the glory of the past, while contributing nothing to tomorrow. That psychotic, populist movement all around the world wants to turn back the clock everywhere, smash the global supply chain, crush all opposition, and force its will on everyone. Delusional populists never crafted a better world, only more suffering. They never invented a solution, only ways to kill, maim and crush. They create only paranoia. It's these dark minds that think the world is great when you're violent and angry and tough. They want to build walls to keep out people and ideas, not realizing that the world was built on the exchange of ideas and the interplay of cultures mixing and mingling.
Those great chains of ideas are what make the world of today amazing. Those stacks of inventions make today one of the most magical times to be alive.
It's the millions of invisible inventors and the 100s of millions of craftspeople and engineers who made the world we live in. They saw a problem and they tried to find a way to solve it. They didn't believe that life would automatically be better tomorrow no matter what they did. They made a better tomorrow through action.
To change the world you have to look at the world the way those inventors and discoverers did. You have to follow your interests, forget what they told you about simply making money, sleeping, eating and repeating it all endlessly until you die with no passion or purpose. You've got to look around you and see. Really see. See all that came before you and how wonderful and incredible it all is. See how the people who solved those earlier problems and let you move "up the stack" to solve more interesting problems with your own life.
Everyday life is infused with brilliance and it’s just waiting for you to open your eyes. Today you can go on the web and get a better education than the richest people of a hundred years ago for free. You can get on a plane and go visit the great places of the world, see the sights for yourself, eat the local food, all for a fraction of the price it would have cost the titans of industry in the 1800s. And you can do it faster too. You don't have to spend two months on a boat at sea. You can arrive tomorrow or the day after in a totally different country. You can read a hundred different histories of Greece or Rome or China or Korea or the Arab world or Europe. You can study materials science from brilliantly written books, rather than having to go to a library and read a dry, out of date scholarly text from a decade ago. You can learn to program. Study math. Study strategy. AI. Chemistry. Cooking. You can fill your mind with ideas and information and learn from the people of the past and become one of the very people who create a better tomorrow.
Get curious. Look. See.
All around you is magic.
You just have to look long enough to really see it.
And what you create with that magic is up to you.
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