Celebrate mankind’s drive to discover

It’s become fashionable in this age of global warming and the rise of ever-tougher diseases to blame Christopher Columbus with destroying the New World.

To those who succumb to such talk, we issue a reminder: There would be no New World if Columbus, motivated by either the desire to explore or the desire to reach untold riches depending upon the historical source cited, had not set out in 1492 with his band of sailors aboard three little wooden ships into the unknown.

The world as it was known by “civilized man” then ended at the horizon visible from the Spanish coastline. What lay beyond was a great unknown.

Columbus didn’t have radar, GPS navigation tools or satellite phones allowing him and his men to stay in contact with some monitoring party on shore back in Spain. Such unthinkable aids to the seafarer were centuries off into the unknown future, as much as the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were sailing off into the physical unknown.

Columbus had a bit of larceny in his management style. He kept two sets of logs, historians say: One that showed short distances traveled to keep the crews from mutinying and a second that accurately recorded the ships’ position.

On Oct. 12, 1492, the Italian sailor reached land, five weeks after departing the Canary Islands on his last contact with the world.

He found a land he believed was poor, with natives running around naked with their parrots, their simple bark canoes and spears and balls of spun cotton.

And yes, he did have conquest in mind, writing Queen Isabella that the islands could be conquered with 50 men, though he also detailed that he gave the natives items and would not take the cotton they offered in return.

The results are, obviously, the stuff of history and here we sit today.

There always will be a divide, however illogical it might seem, among those who analyze history and ask “why” and those who ask “why not.”

It is that basic desire to discover the unknown that drives man to great discoveries and has driven such discoveries throughout history, be they among explorers, astronomers or microbiologists and those who want to manipulate DNA.

There will always be those who say “it can’t be done,” and those who, after a remarkable deed is performed, will ask “Why did we do that?”

Columbus and his journey is the stuff of history 524 years later, but it was once the stuff of dreams, the stuff of those who ask “Why not?”

Mankind still has frontiers to conquer, in medicine, in engineering, in returning to the moon, in developing the supposed impossibility of faster-than-light interstellar space travel.

Someone must ask “Why not?” to make those journeys begin.

Forget the political ramifications of discoveries and consider simply that they must be made to answer that elemental question of existence.

It is that spirit of asking that most basic question that drives mankind to discover and that spirit is what is celebrated on Columbus Day.