Why? Because we’re human. This is what we do.

Today I watched a man ride a balloon up to 128,000 feet — and jump out. The picture above is a still from the video shown on the BBC. As of this writing, we’re still awaiting official confirmation that Felix Baumgartner broke the sound barrier with his body. [Update: Yes he did.]

The media refer to Baumgartner as a daredevil, and he certainly is that. You could call his jump a stunt, call it foolhardy, call him an adrenaline junkie — and maybe all those things are true. But while watching the broadcast I couldn’t help but think, This is who we are. This is what we do.

Not most of us, of course. (Hell, I wouldn’t make that jump.) But think of the early airplane pilots and the ridiculous chances they took, or the Mercury astronauts climbing atop rockets that had only recently been prone to spectacular failure on launch, or the first sailors to sail out of sight of land.

There’s always a segment of the human population willing to take big chances to do something that hasn’t been done before. They accept the risks for a variety of reasons, some better than others: for science, for thrills, for glory, to beat the Russians, to find gold. Individually, their achievements are of varying worth, but taken together, they represent the leading edge of discovery. They represent that part of human nature which remains forever dissatisfied with the limits of possibility, and which will risk life and limb to push those limits back a little further than they were before.

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