A popular and persistent myth about the Wright brothers, those aviation pioneers who transformed manned flight over a century ago, is that they were considered cranks by their contemporaries, chasing a pipedream that many believed to be “impossible.”
The truth is that humans had been flying for more than one hundred years before the Wrights’ legendary Flyer 1 lift-off near Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903. French inventors Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier (also brothers) developed one of the first practical hot air balloons as early as 1783. By the time the Wrights tested their powered airplane, glider soaring and more sophisticated balloon flights were in fact quite common. The real puzzle—the solving of which lies at the heart of the Wrights’ true innovative genius—was aerial control, the balancing and steering of a plane after it was actually in flight. Through persistent testing with homemade wind tunnels and variable wing designs, propeller shapes and engine materials, they eventually built a heavier-than-air machine capable of powered, sustained and controlled flight. Two years later, a more refined version of their invention flew 24 miles in 39.5 minutes. By then, a new era of aviation had indeed begun, one that in the course of just a few more years would transform the 20th Century by making the world seem smaller. Reinventing commerce, warfare and diplomacy, and giving rise to civil aviation—the ability of ordinary people to travel enormous distances in a matter of hours—would connect the planet like never before.
When innovation is at its egalitarian best, great ideas of the few transform the lives of the many. And this is often accomplished not by huge leaps and major paradigm shifts, but by incremental improvements with the best tools at hand. Orville and Wilbur knew that the laws of physics would allow for powered flight; they just needed to understand how. And through their inventiveness and obsessive tinkering, they found a critical missing piece of the puzzle. Others followed them, of course, and new commercial aircraft players brought scalability and accessibility to this new technology.
Fast forward to our own century, a time when biology, not physics, is center stage. And an era in which biotechnology is already redefining the fields of medicine, energy, food, criminal justice, environmental sustainability and countless others. Like the Wrights, we know the “laws” of biology and what they allow for. We have an understanding of the blueprints of life—DNA—that expands exponentially every year, bolstering not only life-changing breakthroughs but also growth of the US economy and our worldwide recognition as a genomic leader. With the successful merging of semiconductor DNA sequencing technology and sophisticated chemistry, we can see these blueprints of life with clarity and scalability once unimaginable. Biology is just like any other form of digital data, able to be codified, shared instantaneously, analyzed and manipulated. Whereas the era of air flight made the world smaller, the Age of Biology connects us all in a deeper way, elucidating the very core fabric that runs through all life, and presenting the fundamental promise that we can always improve it.
Many challenges lay ahead: digitizing a standard human phenotype, collecting and comparing enormous amounts of data, linking disparate healthcare infrastructures so that we can maximize relevant clinical data and making the case to policymakers that life science funding is a critical priority. To solve these and others will take the same creative thinking, innovative genius and accessible tools that have historically allowed the arc of scientific discovery to move from the lab to the living room.