Monday 28 July 2014

The Edge: not an abyss but a place to fly

You wouldn't think to look at his appreciative and confident smile (he's just taken a huge ovation at TEDxHollywood in June) that this is a man with problems. In his talk, however, he itemises a list of handicaps any one of which would be devastating for people like me: he's blind, he's paralyzed, he's bald and he's from Nor'n Ireland. But in the same way as Stephen Sutton was not defined by his cancer, Mark Pollock is not defined by his problems. He's not even defined by his solutions, he's just himself: kind, funny, and courageous. He's also outrageously sporty (me = not): winning rowing medals at the Commonwealth Games 2002 ; six marathons over a week in the Gobi desert 2003; running to the South Pole 2004. A bit of an all-rounder like Zatopek? You might think that pitching out of a second floor window and breaking his back in 2010 would put a stop to his gallop, but not so. He's bored in his wheelchair (not to mention the pressure sores) and has spent the last many months in California being a guinea-pig for a pair of robotic legs. Supporting this endeavour has gotten thousands of people across the world off their sofas to Run in the Dark.  It's about getting his mobility back, yes, but it's also about developing a technological solution to paralysis and other forms of leglessless.  I'll recommend another TED talk by neuroscientist Stuart Firestein on the Joys of Ignorance and telling science like it is ("farting around in the dark"), not the way Scientific Method textbooks say it should be. He says something interesting and Pollock-relevant about how techies have taken the last 30 years to reproduce in machines many of the attributes that evolution has taken 2 million years to make functional: face-recognition, auto-focus cameras, how things smell.  But he admits that getting robots that walk without tripping over their own wires has been a very great challenge; but galloping (yee-har) they can do.

And you might wish that, rather than talking at a TEDx event to relatively ordinary citizens (although ticket prices were a humpin' $250) from LA, he was pitching to a TED proper meeting where only the seriously rich can afford the $6K annual membership. Chris Anderson, please note.

What does it take to make a contribution to that sort of science? It takes Mark, so far, 300,000 steps. The same year Mark was running to the South Pole, I was walking along the Camino de Santiago. That trudge of 800,000 steps did me some service although one of his steps was equivalent to 500 of mine, blisters and all. There's also this comparison:  almost every day in Spain I met people on the Camino who had to dig deep into their reserves of courage to carry on with their personal pilgrimage: not only those on crutches and wheelchairs or terminal with cancer but also those surrounded by a black cloud of sadness and despair. Mark's trials (both in the sense of experiment and tribulation) in California are going to make a difference in Kampuchea without him ever going there. But more importantly Mark makes a difference because, like Open University, the RNLI and the Jack&Jill Foundation he shows us the best of what we have within ourselves.

What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”  Nelson Mandela

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