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Poetry In Motion: Why Neil Young’s LincVolt Matters

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So I’m writing to you from behind the wheel of a car I’ve never seen. In person, anyway. But this car, she’s beautiful. And smart. And completely irresistible. I’ve kind of fallen in love with her. I’m sitting here behind the wheel of Neil Young’s LincVolt (in my mind), just drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, and thinking. I’m trying to figure out why she matters so much to me. LincVolt is a 1959 Lincoln Continental Mark IV currently being converted to an eco-friendly vehicle that will achieve more than 100MPG with zero emissions.

She is the most unlikely eco-friendly vehicle you will ever see. At more than 2½ tons and 19½ feet long, she has been lovingly referred to by her owner as “The Flying Brick,” an apt moniker. The ’59 Lincoln, designed at a time when American cars were at the height of tail fin and heft absurdity, was chosen by Neil for that very reason: If this car can be earth-friendly, then surely yours can be too. That’s cool, right? Move on. Right? I can’t! I keep thinking about her. I’m in love! I had to find out why.

Maybe LV (that’s what I call her) matters so much to me because I love Neil Young so much. Well, yeah, sure, that’s part of it. Anyone who knows me would tell you I’m the Number One Fan of The Man From Tennessee, uh, Omemee. I’m pretty sure there’s a wanted poster with my picture on it in his manager’s mailroom. But it’s more than that, somehow. Maybe it’s Kevin’s fault.

Kevin, my older brother and only sibling had one passion and one passion only: cars. I spent my childhood playing with not dolls but Matchbox cars, whiling away the warm September evenings not hand-in-hand with a boyfriend but trailing after my brother and best friend, trolling the lots of every car dealer in town, inspecting the new models the day they rolled off the trailer. Family road trips meant, for my brother and me, one of our two favorite games: Name That Car!

The year, make, and model of the other cars on the road shot out of our mouths as if our lives depended on it; if I could beat my brother to the punch on even one, I had won. The latest fashions in tail lights, tail fins, and bumpers were as familiar to me as the painter’s pants, Earth shoes, and maxi skirts I tried to keep up with in the hallways of our big public school. (The other favorite game of ours, well, uh, his, was Car & Squirrel. You can imagine how that one went down. You know. Who played the car and who played the squirrel? Ugh. Sometimes it’s hard to be the youngest.)

But I’m going off the road here. Maybe, maybe LV matters so much to me simply because I’m such a fan of The Earth and this is the world’s coolest green vehicle? No, no, no. It’s more. So much more. If I am ever to get to the bottom of this, I need to go back to the beginning, when Art and Science first shook hands, and became friends: The Age of Romanticism. Come with me.

During The Age of Romanticism, Wordsworth suggested that imagination was the faculty that not only allowed us to truly perceive the world around us, but also, to create it. To create it. Coleridge took it even farther, calling the imagination “intellecutal intuition,” with the unique power to join reason and feeling. [1] 

The Age of Romanticism was, of course, imagination’s golden age. And LincVolt is, of course, its modern day, heavy metal embodiment, representing the most graceful intersection of art and science, where imagination invites reason to dance. Ah. And here is where I begin to unravel the mystery of LincVolt’s place in my heart, I think; why this old-new car is more important to me, and to the world, than a passing fancy. By way of its very existence, LincVolt defies conventional wisdom, and leaps the guardrail of mainstream thinking. LincVolt’s engagement of our imagination, with its unique alchemy of past, present, and future, moves us beyond thinking, all the way to feeling. Beyond understanding to knowing. To the place where all great scientific discovery, all revolution, really begins: the heart.

According to Gerald Holton, a Professor of Physics and Professor of The History of Science Emeritus at Harvard University, Albert Einstein believed wholeheartedly in the power of the imagination, and “intellectual intuition.” In a famous speech of 1918, Einstein suggested that "the elusive, additional element needed for high achievement in science is a 'state of feeling' in the researcher, which he called 'akin to that of … one who is in love.'" [2]  Hmm. I know that feeling. Leave it to Einstein to hit the nail on the head. This is exactly what I am trying to get at with LincVolt. I’m drawn to her. I feel that something is very right here, but I am no scientist. I would be hard pressed to tell you exactly what. But the very sight of her fills me with wonder. Excitement! Hope. I can feel it.

Holton has well explored the art of the scientific imagination, and in fact talks much about how scientists “feel” something before they can prove it. How they just “know.” About the scientist’s “willing suspension of disbelief, analogous to that which Samuel Taylor Coleridge identified as the task of the poet, and not far from what John Keats referred to as the ‘Negative Capability’ of great authors (their ability of ‘remaining content with half-knowledge.’)" [3] In other words, just as poets feel something before they ever put pen to paper, so do scientists have a powerful feeling before they ever set out on their path of great discovery.

Remember that Einstein’s theory of the expanding universe — something that Einstein knew but could not prove more than 90 years ago — was proven just three years ago, with Einstein long dead. In 2007, Gravity Probe B, one of NASA's most complicated satellites, confirmed to a precision of better than one percent that an object such as the Earth does indeed distort the fabric of space and time, the newly identified “dark energy,” eerily resembling the “cosmological constant” which Einstein felt, but could not prove, existed. [4] In conversation Einstein often referred to his inner voice, and indeed seemed to rely more heavily on it than any facts that did or did not present themselves. Albert Einstein had a passionate belief in his own intellectual intuition.

Perhaps the same might be said of us all. That sometimes, important times, we just know something before we can explain or articulate it. This could be, should be one of those important times. Change is afoot. So far traditional methods to change the behaviors of the people and policy makers to bring about significant and necessary change to save our planet from imminent disaster haven’t been working, last month’s Copenhagen climate talks the most recent, most expansive, most disappointingly horrifying case in point. Things have to be done differently. We need more power. It’s time for imagination and reason to start dancing again.

Scientist-philosophers are useful at a time like this, and scientist-philosopher Hans Christian Oersted has become a sort of hero of mine vis a vis this car, not only because of his unique relationship with electricity which laid the groundwork for the discovery of a useable electric current (LincVolt is currently part electric, and may wind up all electric before she’s done), but also because in his time he was, to quote Gerald Holton, “a striking example of the fruitful interaction of science and the greater culture, which nowadays is rarely attended to but which is all around us.” [5]

When science interacts with the greater culture (LincVolt), big things can happen (in Oersted’s case, a useable electric current!); one thing leads to another. But unless science is interacting with the greater culture, as it did during the Age of Romanticism, The Age of Wonder, no such connections can be made, everyone is essentially working in a vacuum. Who knows what kind of idea and change LincVolt out there on the road may spark? It could, quite literally, ignite the fire that will change the world. LincVolt rolling across America with Neil Young behind the wheel is the practical application of the Romantic ideal: By connecting science and ideas to the world around us, and to popular culture, the marriage of imagination and reason is tantiilizingly tangible, and suddenly even greater than the sum of its parts.

I know I’m biased, being in love and all, but LincVolt is greater than the sum of her parts; she is no artist’s folly. From the beginning, her development team has been focused on tackling two of the biggest challenges electric cars face, limited range and eventual battery replacement. Currently configured with powerful lithium ion iron phospate batteries and an efficient 75KW generator system to recharge those batteries while underway means that LincVolt is ready for the real world, able to take people on their daily commute or across the continent. As new technologies have become available and discoveries made, LincVolt has evolved, but her original design concept, the electric hybrid, has stood the test of time.

But now, after more than two years of development and many iterations (90 percent of her systems have been completely overhauled since the original proof of concept stage), it seems that LV is at a turning point; her team now weighs the pro’s and con’s of her current configuration against other possibilities, and their impact on the environment, one last time. Should she be all electric, with a range of 150 miles or so, or an electric hybrid with a back up generator enabling longer trips? There are advantages and disadvantages to both. But it’s not only LincVolt that’s at a turning point. The whole world is at a turning point, the environmental outlook is bleak; we’re in dire need of change. This is the point of no return for us all; it’s time for the world, too, to step back, and weigh the pro’s and con’s of its possibilities one last time, and then, to act. It’s time to do things differently, and we need more people who think differently in order to do it.

I know that Bill McKibben, American Environmentalist and Scholar-in-Residence at Middlebury College [6], shares this view of the world; he frequently writes about global warming and alternative energies, and has authored several books on the subject of the environment, including The End of Nature, published in 1989 and widely regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has worked tirelessly for years to impress upon us that “already we’ve passed the point where we can avoid serious change, and with it the need for a real re-thinking of how we’re going to live on this planet.” So I decided to ask him what he thought of all this. Did he think, as I do, that LincVolt, and projects like her, projects that represent the intersection of art and science, are criticial to the revolutionary kind of behavioral change our planet needs if it is going to surivive ecologically? It’s inspirational, sure (hey, Neil Young’s eco-friendly car is so cool! I want one!), but it’s more somehow, I tried to explain. It speaks to me, I said. It creates in me something I can feel, rather than think. It speaks to my heart, as well as my brain, and therein lies its magic. All revolution begins in the heart, doesn’t it?

McKIbben was familiar with LincVolt, and he was intrigued (“What a good article to be writing!”), agreeing that indeed LincVolt matters: “I think in a celebrity culture it’s important for celebrities to try and lend their particular talents to things that are already going on, as well as dream up their own things, like the LincVolt.” Indeed. LincVolt might well consider becoming part of things that are already going on, like 350.org, the international climate campaign Bill McKibben founded, by, say, driving 350 miles on three gallons of natural fuel, or three charges, or some such, as a part of that organization’s 2010 initiatives. Or, LincVolt might consider doing her own thing, perhaps an old-fashioned/new-fangled road trip, a Crossing The Continent in The Heavy Metal Continental Tour. After all, the nation’s very first transcontinental highway, and very first named highway, was called the Lincoln Highway. Did Neil Young know that when he chose the Lincoln for this project? Maybe he felt it.

Bill McKibben went on to say that although generally he might worry about celebrity involvement in these issues because it runs the risk of trivializing everything, he didn’t have that concern here: “Neil Young doesn’t trivialize much!,” he said. “He‘s the real deal. I’m glad he’s hooked in.” High praise for Neil Young and LincVolt from one of the world’s leading minds on how we are going to save the planet for another day. Neil Young is indeed “the real deal,” no argument here. And he is perhaps uniquely well qualified for this particular project — there is a bit of the mad scientist in him. If you’ve ever seen him play the electric guitar live on a stage you will know what I mean; I don’t think I am overstating it when I say that the man has a unique and intimate relationship with electricity, the likes of which you are not likely to experience anywhere else, ever.

We need people like Neil Young, and projects like LincVolt, things that are going to make people feel something, to push our environmental agenda forward. Things that are going to force people to think differently, things that are going to give people permission to abandon their safe haven of reason and rational thought and step into the unknown, to light a candle inside themselves and wander into the dark corners of their imaginations and their hearts. It’s time to do things differently.

As author Richard Holmes puts it in his elegant new book Age of Wonder, “The old rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.” [7]

To me, this is what LincVolt (and Neil Young) represent: Wonder. Hope. A questing belief in a future for the globe, and us all. It doesn’t matter if the car gets 100 miles to the gallon or 150, if the car is all electric or a hybrid, if it crosses the continent on that old Lincoln Highway or just drives Neil Young to his next gig. What matters is that the car IS. An old car that can do new things. Whatever the limits of its abilities and technology in the end, it remains a wonder. A spark.

Artists have the spark that lights the fire that lights the world. LincVolt is a spark. You know, Camus said that a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. Maybe LincVolt is one of those rediscoveries, for me. When I look at her beautiful, ridiculous, two and a half ton, 19½ foot long, heavy metal body, it tugs at my heart. When I look at her, I know that here, Neil Young’s imagination asked reason to dance. And when I look under the hood, it’s a comfort, somehow, such a comfort, to know that sometimes reason says yes.

References

1. A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Landmarks of Literature, Brooklyn College

2, 3. “The Art of The Scientific Imagination,” Gerald Holton, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of the History of Science, Emeritus, PhD 1948, Harvard University

4. “Einstein was right: space and time bend,” Anushka Asthana and David Smith, The Observer, 15 April 2007

5. “Oersted and the Romantic influences on scientific achievement: Scientist-‘Romantic’ sparks interest,” Alvin Powell, Harvard University Gazette, 2 May 2002

6. Bill McKibben

7. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, Richard Holmes, Pantheon, 2009

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About Karen Barry

  • http://willkillforfood.com Lisa McKay

    Speaking of poetry and sparks, Karen, this is a wonderful article. Thanks for writing it — you’ve managed to take an important, but invariable dry, topic and make it speak to the imagination (not unlike the LincVolt itself). Thank you!

  • http://www.thrasherswheat.org/wheatfield.html thrasher

    Hi K,

    Nice. Very nice.

    The LV crew is smiling somewhere up above.

    We’ve had another fork in the road.

    Got to get back to the garden, the age of romanticism and the age of wonder.

    bye, LA. LMYR.

    out where the pavement turns to sand,
    t

  • Geldolf

    I love articles that can keep a story personal and intimate while still discussing larger and more complex issues. It makes traditional dry material come alive. Susan Sontag and HS Thompson are two other writers that come to mind who have that gift. Keep on writing in the free world

  • Eileen F.

    Wow. Great stuff, Karen. I just ordered James Hillman’s “The Soul’s Code” on amazon and then read this! I’m sure this extensive experimentation with electricity is as coded in Mr. Young’s DNA, as writing is in yours. Now, if *I* can just figure out what I was put here for… : )

  • http://childsupportday.com Deadbeat Dads

    Great story. How’s the project coming? Do you have progress pics on here somewhere?