Asking Questions and Doing Things

The Science of Skydiving

In a small Italian town in the year 1452, Leonardo da Vinci, one of history’s greatest and boldest minds was born.

The diversely talented painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer is said to have possessed an “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination.”

Leonardo was, and is, renowned primarily as a painter. Among his works, the Mona Lisa is the most famous and most parodied portrait and The Last Supper is the most reproduced religious painting of all time.

His great fame endures despite leaving little art behind when compared to his vast array of scientific and engineering drawings and studies.

No subject was beyond the reach of his curiosity and insight.

He dared to dissect the human body – in order to better understand it, and to learn to heal it. He designed countless possible and impossible devices, many that wouldn’t be invented for hundreds of years after his death.

But there was one vision he cherished above all others: he believed that, some day, human beings would fly.

For much of his life, Leonardo was fascinated by the phenomenon of flight, producing many studies of the flight of birds, as well as plans for several flying machines, including a light hang glider and a machine resembling a helicopter.

“And once you have tasted flight,” he said, “you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward. For there you have been, and there you long to return.”

Legend says a man jumped off a tall tree holding two umbrellas in 1783, however the first documented parachute jump occured in 1797 in Paris. Parachutists first jumped from airplanes in 1912.

Sky diving as we know it today, including a free fall before the parachute is pulled, didn’t become a “sport” until the 1950′s.

The goal of skydiving is to turn falling into flying. For thrill seekers, the body’s response to danger is what they’re after. Like most extreme sports enthusiasts, they live for the adrenaline rush.

Biologically, all human beings are nearly identical. Inside, we’re all built essentially the same. But even the smallest variations can produce tremendous differences when it comes to one’s attitude towards risk.

Inside the brain are billions of special molecules called neurotransmitters. One particular neurotransmitter called “serotonin” is linked with feelings of well being and anxiety. Serotonin levels are regulated by another molecule called Monoamine Oxidase, or “MAO.”

MAO level is just one of many factors that shape a human being but extreme risk takers tend to have about a third less MAO than the average person. Low MAO levels are also common to entrepreneurs, inventors, artists and performers. Thus, whether one decides to risk one’s life for sport is a matter of MAO level and personality.

The word ‘risk’ derives from the early Italian Risicare, which means ‘to dare’. In this sense, risk is a choice rather than a fate.

While most of us may never become an extreme thrill seeker or sports enthusiast, it’s our interest in science that may lead us into another realm of risk that is at the core of the human experience.

Risk as a hobby is a modern phenomenon and the most fundamental thing about recreational risk is that seeking it is a uniquely human trait: no other animal puts its life in danger for fun.

In his study Adrenaline Rush – The Science of Risk, author Jonathan Hock explains that the margin for error in skydiving is almost nonexistent.

“What looks easy is really the result of hundreds of practice jumps. Control of the body in this condition isn’t something that happens naturally. One awkward move at high speed can end up in a collision. Therefore, maintaining clarity of mind during the overwhelming sensation of free fall is the first skill to master.”

He reminds us that although the greatest risks are taken at the extreme edges of society, life is most often lived in the quiet center.

According to Mr. Hock, “modern skydivers have returned to the Renaissance and have recaptured the wonder of flight. It is the willingness to take risks that fuels the quest for knowledge, and without risk, progress would be impossible.

21st Century sky divers are guided by a 15th Century visionary and the divide of the ages are bridged by a common bond: a willingness to risk everything from one’s reputation to one’s very life, in pursuit of knowledge and progress.

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