When I was in elementary school, my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Sheinen, held up a clear, plastic, Bic ballpoint pen and asked the class to explain to a Martian, in writing, what it was, and what it was used for. He told us that we had to consider that the Martian had just landed on Earth and everything on our planet was foreign to him (of course it was a him; it was 1970, and times weren’t yet a-changin’* in Northeast Philadelphia).
Mr. Sheinen wanted us to describe every aspect of the pen: what it was made of, what filled the clear tube inside the pen, what the pointed tip of the pen did, how the caps were used and why, etc.
At the time, I remember thinking that, to a Martian, a ballpoint pen would appear to be magical. While we knew that they had cool stuff, like spaceships, antennas, bulging eyes, and green skin, they certainly didn’t have ballpoint pens. After all, who would want to write in Martian?
Looking back, I’m sure that Mr. Sheinen gave us this complicated project just to get some quiet time. Or, maybe he actually wanted to learn about Bic pens, his being a Martian and all.
This got me to thinking about what we perceive as magic. If I happened to time-travel from the 1700s into today’s world, I would be ready to burn everyone as witches. How could I, as an 18th-century person, not think that computers, cell phones, GPS, television, radio, streaming video and audio, Skype, and on and on, weren’t magic, and probably black magic? So much of what we use and create is invisible.
Centuries from now, when our civilization is excavated by archaeologists, what will they make of all the flat black boxes of varying sizes that they find in every house, and next to every skeleton? They won’t know about the satellites we relied on to make them work, or the electricity we used to power them. It would be fun to hear them speculate about their use.
Every thousand years or so, civiizations and their secrets disappear. That’s why I don’t understand why we marvel at the building of pyramids and the other wonders of our world. Everyone has seen drawings of the building of the pyramids, and they always include ropes hoisting slaves up each level to continue the job of building. Why? If we’ve harnessed the invisible powers of magnetism, electricity, sound, space, etc., for our needs, why do we not consider that Egyptians might have used the power of the mind, the body, or something else?
It does seem that once certain secrets of the universe have been discovered and utilized by a civilization, that society’s days are numbered. And once it’s gone, most of its knowledge is erased. The next group starts from scratch, just like poor Sisyphus, the Corinthian king who was doomed to rolling a huge boulder up a hill, watching it roll down again, and beginning again, forever.
This reminds me of Mr. Sheinen’s essay. Every time we handed our composition in to him, he said that it wouldn’t make sense to a Martian, so we started over. I hope that he finally learned how to use his Bic pen.
*The Times They Are a-Changin’, a song by Bob Dylan, 1964