Further musings on the things science can’t explain: Part 2 (perhaps)

Last week, I got off my fat one, ferried it elsewhere, and sat back on it in my favourite cinema seat, and, with a (plastic) ‘glass’ of Rioja and sharing some Green & Black’s white chocolate with my companion, enjoyed, and wondered at, Man on Wire. This at a time when The Olympics were upon us, instilling in me a varying mix of admiration and happiness, envy and occasional melancholy. The talent and dedication. Nurtured nature. Some people are just born with an innate potential to be able, with the right coaching, training and application, to go faster, further, heavier, longer, etc. But Philippe Petit’s game I just don’t get.

We are innately repulsed or fearful of certain things. To varying degrees, we tend to avoid that which we consciously or unconsciously associate with harm, presumably because our distant ancestors that feared spiders, snakes and bad tempers with lots of teeth, were more likely to keep away from them and so increased their likelihood of surviving to reproduce. This instinct varies widely: some seemingly have no fear; some can overcome it, some can’t; and some may even develop irrational fear of particular things – phobia.

Whilst in Australia last year, I visited a place with a collection of some of that land’s less cuddly creatures. The guide impressed when she removed the black drape covering the box housing a large tarantula, then lifted the lid, reached in and picked the thing up. (It turns out that keeping a tarantula in the dark like this ‘trains’ it to know that it is about to be handled, and so is less likely to be cheesed off about the fact.) Now, I’m not too bad with spiders, although I have to steel myself to deal with a big bitch of a wolf. But picking up a tarantula! Which makes me think again of the guy in the recently screened Land of the Jaguar, who was quite happy (providing he didn’t cough and startle it) with an inch-long-fanged bird-eating spider, the size of – and on – the palm of his hand. How so?

A couple of days later, I spent some time snorkelling round part of The Great Barrier Reef off Port Douglas, Queensland. A visual feast was interrupted after a couple of hours when I looked down and recognised a familiar finned form resting still on the bottom. This was a first: nothing between me and it except about fifty feet of clear seawater. My snorkelling mask had a magnifying effect, but I figure this thing was still about as long as me, and with a better set of teeth. I surfaced to check where the boat was – about fifty metres, I reckoned. Little point, then, trying to make like one of these

, or a laws-of-physics-defying prophet. And rationality assured that the boat’s company would not bring punters out to somewhere with a likelihood of sharks taking a bite out of them. Having said that, they could be wrong; and if I’d seen Open Water beforehand, and had the thing roused itself and started sinewing in my direction, I might have panicked. But I didn’t; I swam back calmly, so as not to generate too much electricity (idiot!). When I got back to the boat, I announced to one of the watching crew as coolly as I could, “There’s a shark down there!” Other than opening his arms out wide, he was reassuringly unmoved. “Was it about this long, with a white tip on its fin?” “Err, yeah?” “That’ll be a Whitetip reef

; if it was interested in you, you wouldn’t have even seen it.” Rrrright. Good!

Sorry, I’ve ramblingly digressed. What’s my point? Well, none really (does there have to be one?). Except that we tend, understandably, to be averse to potentially dangerous things – including heights. However, we also have the propensity to overcome such aversion, whether for the thrill of the challenge, overpowering inquisitiveness, or out of necessity. I have this picture on my wall at home

. These remarkable men apparently became so ‘immune’ to the fear of heights that they could lie down for a nap on the girder of an in-build skyscraper. But Philippe Petit lies down on a tightrope. In 1974, with neither harness nor safety net, he walked on, and lay down upon, a tightrope strung between the then Twin Towers of The World Trade Center. People trapped at height are often advised not to look down. Petit sat on his tightrope and took in the view, including that of the distant ground beneath him.

We might jokily call him crazy. A few would cynically sneer that he is mad. Yet he comes across as otherwise sound; no suggestion of recklessness indicative of a death wish. He didn’t do it to die; he did it to live_. Does he lack something that most of us retain? Some kind of coincidental accumulation of (_de novo) genetic mutations affecting balance, the fear response and innate willpower? Beats me.

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