The Explorer Gene: A book review by Bob Morris

Explorer GeneThe Explorer Gene: How Three Generations of One Family Went Higher, Deeper and Further Than Anyone Before
Tom Cheshire
Marble Arch Press (2013)

How and why “we can all learn something of the Piccards’ spirit and passion for discovery ourselves”

Here is what caught my eye in James Cameron’s Foreword: “An important aspect of the ‘expression’ of the Explorer Gene is this requirement to see for oneself — to bear witness, personally to the unknown, to see that which has never been seen before by human eyes. And to project not only one’s consciousness on a journey of imagination, but tom project one’s physical body, with full knowledge of the attendant risks, to some extreme vantage point from which no human being has ever looked out upon unknown vistas.”

What we have in this volume is Tom Cheshire’s lively as well as rigorous and comprehensive exploration of a gene, D4DR (or “explorer gene”), and why “it may be as much a metaphor of the genetic age as arctic fever was in an era of infectious disease, or wanderlust in an age when romanticism held sway.” He describes with exceptional skill “how successive generations of the Piccard family, through their natures and their nurtures, and their relationships with one another, came to be such pioneers.” Three men in particular — August, then Jacques, and finally Bertrand Piccard — represented three generations of the Piccard family that went higher, deeper, and further than anyone else had ever done before.

“We do not know whether the Piccards carry the D4DR gene…Instead, it seems the explorer gene may in fact be a meme – a unit of cultural transmission that, like a gene, replicates and propagates itself. The strongest, fittest genes are handfed down. The explorer meme means that we can all learn something of the Piccards’ spirit and passion for discovery ourselves.” Helping his reader to gain a better understanding and appreciation of the process of discovery is Cheshire’s primary objective and he achieves it fully and memorably.

Those who work their way through this lively narrative will learn that on May 27, 1931, Auguste Piccard became the first human to enter the stratosphere, flying an experimental balloon he invented himself. Thirty years later, his son Jacques went to the bottom of the earth, descending to the Mariana Trench in a submarine built by him and Auguste. To this day, no one has gone deeper. Bertrand, the third generation, was the first person to fly around the world non-stop in a balloon. Now, he’s building his own craft: a solar-powered plane to circumnavigate the globe. Cheshire explains how and why these achievements occurred and of even greater interest to me is what he has to say about three quite extraordinary people who are members of the same family.

As I read Cameron’s comments quoted earlier and then Cheshire’s riveting accounts of various Piccard adventures, I was again reminded of Tennyson’s Ulysses:

“It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

When Tom Cheshire concludes this book, he shifts his attention to Thierry Piccard whose life offers an alternative existence: the explorer genes without the explorer meme. That is, given the achievements of his older brother, Bertrand, he has been free to pursue a less adventurous existence as a corporate executive. He is very proud of his family’s renown but has no regrets. “I’m more comfortable on the ground.” That is also true of almost every one who reads this book.

Cheshire again: “The Piccards carry on the adventure for us. But the example of three generations — their attitude, their endeavour and their inventiveness — can teach the rest of us to be pioneers, to challenge ourselves, and perhaps to make a special type of bread, if we want. We all have explorer genes; we don’t have to go ton the highest, the deepest, or the furthest, to make use of them.” The Piccards and other great explorers throughout history inspire us, in our own ways and to varying extent, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

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