Today was Nikola Tesla's birthday. Tesla holds a special place in my heart. He was one of those people that I find absolutely captivating. When I was in middle school, I believed that he was the scientist par excellence. I didn't really understand that he objected to most forms of science, rejected Conservation (come on how do you reject Conservation!?). In short, I didn't really know what science was back then. So Tesla became my model of science. Though I have moved away from many of Tesla's notions of the order of the natural universe,there is something about him. Something compelling and tragic. Not just because he was BFF with Mark Twain, or a the inventor of alternating current. He was whole and broken all at the same time. He was eccentric and brilliant, but also possibly quite insane. That's what I like about him. He's been to the mountain top and had a chat with the God of Thunder, and came back somehow both more and less than human because of the encounter.
In his autobiography, Tesla recounts that as a very young child he was swimming and swept down stream. He ended up holding onto a concrete dam. With the water running against his chest he knew he would not be able to hold on long. Suddenly, in a flash, he saw the fluid dynamic equation for water pressure materialize before his eyes. He realized if he swung himself sideways and wrapped an arm around the dam, rather than holding on by his fingers, he would reduce his surface area to the oncoming water; thus, reducing drag and lessening the amount of force required to hold on. He was able to stay in that position for hours until the search party found him.
That has always stuck with me. Over all of his other eccentricities (fear of hair, claims of building death rays and earthquake machines, and ability to build machinery in his mind) that story somehow is Tesla to me. I don't know why. Perhaps, its simply because we have all had those moments of brilliance or it reminds me of the time I dreamed the solution to a particularly difficult math problem I had been working on. Maybe it's because that is (in many ways) the only thing I have in common with Tesla. I don't know.
“I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success... Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.”