The story of Icarus is one of the most famous Greek myths. Young Icarus is imprisoned alongside his father Daedalus, a genius inventor. They are locked in a tower or a labyrinth in some versions of the story, with no way out. Daedalus creates two sets of wings and gives one to his son. Before they attempt to escape by flying over the ocean, Daedalus gives Icarus an important warning. He tells him not to fly too low, or his feathers will soak up salt water, and he will crash. And he also says not to fly too high, or the sun will burn his wings. Icarus takes off and is overcome with joy. He is finally free. He climbs higher and higher, throwing caution to the wind. And as he nears the sun, his wings catch fire. Daedalus can only watch as his son falls into the ocean and drowns.
The story of Icarus flying too close to the sun has many interpretations. Some say the moral is to find balance. Avoid the highs and lows, and find a middle path. Others say it is a lesson to listen to one’s elders. Others say it’s a warning against egoism and hubris. Not respecting our limitations and not knowing our place in the natural world is a recipe for failure.
Nevertheless, testing boundaries is human nature. People are natural explorers and rule breakers. Our history is one of overcoming limitations and mastering our environment.
Not even the sun is off-limits to the people of Rjukan in Norway. Because Rjukan is located in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains, its people only see the sun for six months of the year. Martin Anderson, a local artist, lobbied for a novel solution: a sun mirror. In 2013, three large mirrors were placed above the town. They are controlled by a computer that tracks the sun as it moves across the sky. The mirrors reflect light down into the once dark center of town.
The Chinese city of Chengdu has an even more audacious plan to illuminate their town. They will build an artificial moon to light up the city at night. The plan is to send up a satellite in 2020 that will reflect the sun’s light down. According to Wu Chunfeng, the chairman of a tech company, the satellite will be eight times as bright as the real moon. And it will save the city $174 million in electricity.
Some people fear that this will result in light pollution. No one knows what the effects of pervasive nighttime light on humans and animals will be. Only time will tell if this will be another triumph for humankind or simply another ill-fated flight of Icarus.