Pushing the Limits: First discussion completed 2013.03.06

Written by David Green.


It wasn't an easy read for most participants of the first "Pushing the Limits" discussion, but in the end, it was a satisfying experience for many readers. They got the connection.

"Connection" was the theme of the first of four book discussions at Morenci’s Stair Public Library—each one showing how science is part of everyone's life and how humans are driven to push the limits. In the book "Thunderstruck," the invention of wireless radio is connected to a turn-of-the-century murder investigation and wireless communication served as a new method of connecting people across long distances.

book discussion.1Adrian College professor Adam Coughlin, who serves as the moderator for the series, learned that about two-thirds of the book discussion audience actually read the entire book while others who didn’t make it all the way through were present just to experience the discussion.

"Half as much a book would have been twice as good," suggested Pat Houtekkier, and Theresa Pobanz said she would have appreciated more about Crippen, the man accused of murdering his wife, and less about Marconi's work on developing the wireless.

"It became work to read it," Ralph Stuebs said. "I enjoyed how it turned out, but it was a lot of work."

Michelle Stevens said she needs to be grabbed by the story in the first chapter or two and she wasn't in this case. For the sake of the discussion, she kept ploughing forward.

Despite the difficulties, said Jane Brasher-Garrow, the way the two parallel stories were woven together was enjoyable.

Marconi's endless experimentation brought a segment of Coughlin's graduate work back into focus. For more than a year he worked on the solution to a project. Try, fail; try, fail. 

"It took me back to Marconi," he said. "Even if the book read slowly, it rehashed so much frustration."

After watching a short video of an interview with the author Erik Larson, Coughlin started the discussion by noting that everyone relies on science whether or not they realize it.

"Science comes into our lives without necessarily calling it science," he said.

Furthermore, many people engage in scientific endeavors and never refer to themselves as scientists, much like Marconi.

"Everything we do is an experiment," Stuebs said. "We don't know if things are going to work out or not, but that's science. That's what Marconi did. That's what a scientist does."

The talk turned back toward connection when Colleen Leddy mentioned how she's in contact with her geographically distant children and grandchildren nearly every day. There's voice, text and face-to-face contact through Skype and Facetime. It's such a change from even 20 years ago.

"It's great, but it's also horrible," Leddy said. "We have so much more of a daily relationship, but it's also a daily reminder that they're not here."

The constant contact has really changed the quality of communication, said Karen Mepham. 

"In the long run, there's less contact," she said. "In a way, all the contact makes people further apart. We're all lost in our own little world."

The contact is there, she said, but it's no longer face to face.

Pat Herman agrees that new technology is bringing new connections, but sometimes technology drives a wedge between the generations.

"We're losing a lot of connection with all the connections," she said.

Coughlin told about an annual rafting trip taken by some Adrian College students that ends in an area with no internet service.

"The first day and a half they're lost," he said, "then they'll start to talk to one another."

He's heard statements along the line of, "I never knew how much fun I could have without my cell phone."

There's a little poison with every medicine, Herman said about technology, adding, "It's mushroomed so fast that I mentally can't keep up with it."

Going back in history, Coughlin said, there was a time when people scoffed at books and said they would rather sit down and hear a story. Now books are the default and some people say they would rather sit down and read a book rather than get lost in modern technology.

The connection between the changes underway in Marconi's time 110 years ago and the changes we're experiencing today are very interesting to compare, Stevens said.

The audience watched a second short video that showed how personal knowledge is passed down through the generations. Not everything is lost, the narrator said. People apply old knowledge to new situations.

Roxanne Swentzell, a Pueblo artist, practices the skills of building from clay and water—skills that were passed down from generation to generation.

It shows how to connect the past, present and future, Stevens said. In contrast to most modern communication, Pobanz said, the personal touch is not lost.

"The video also emphasized learning from the past," Stuebs noted. "It's important. We need to remember that. The past is always connected to the present and the future, if we let it."

• “Thunderstruck” was a tough way to start off the series, Dr. Coughlin said, but the second book in the series, T.C. Boyle's "When the Killing's Done," should engage readers even more.

The theme of the discussion is “nature” and the discussion is planned for March 28 at 7 p.m., with refreshments served at 6:30. Copies of the book are available at the library.

The Pushing the Limits program is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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