The Wave Organ was paid for by the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s “temple of innovation.” Over the years I’ve taken many groups of kids to this wonderful hands-on museum of the most fascinating inventions that move the modern world. My favorites include the cut-away automobile differential that shows how cars turn both wheels on a single axle at different speeds, the scale model of the Golden Gate Bridge showing how suspension support and stresses are equalized, the tornado and icy comet chambers, and the gearbox that starts with a small spinning wheel and ends up with a large wheel that makes one revolution every 13.7 billion years. All of these gadgets “work” in some way, contributing to the beauty, intelligence, and function of the world in which we live.
But not all bright ideas actually prove themselves functional. Probably most of mankind’s innovations do not achieve their intended results in the long run. Yesterday at the Wave Organ, as I sat down to do my midday prayers, a Brit-tish tourist was explaining the Wave Organ in her charming cockney. “When the tides rise and fall,” she confidently announced to her family, “the 25 PVC pipes produce various organ-like sounds.” Well, not actually. I’ve never heard anything more than occasional gurgle from these pipes, and I mean occasional—maybe once every 50 times I’ve sat next to them to catch up on phone calls. The Wave Organ was a fetching concept on paper, winning a large grant of public monies for its construction. Its granite funerary monuments, skillfully arranged, recall the elegant history of our City, and its position overlooking Alcatraz, the Bridges, and the City charms the heart. But in fact it does not do what it was designed to do. Maybe we should change its name from “wave organ” to “portals of the past" or something more accurate.
Successful projects require different types of people: idea people (to visualize innovation), political people (to raise the money and get the permits), worker bee people (to get the job done), and critical people (to troubleshoot problems). Innovation alone is not enough. But here in California, "innovation" has come to be an end in itself. The Wave Organ was a fascinating concept, so it must work! After all, we spent so much money on it!
Social media was a brilliant idea, but does it do what it was designed to do (enrich our personal relationships)? Does that great innovation of the Third Decade of the New Millennium—curing the common cold—actually work? Have we found a cure for the SARS-CoV virus, or are we just taking innovative vaccine technology simply because "it’s a good idea?" Even leftist leaders are now conceding that the Covid vaccine is mostly a placebo.
Placebos have their own value, I suppose. I wanted to stand up yesterday and say to our lovely tourists: “The Wave Organ doesn’t work.” But that would have darkened their glittering experience of this lovely City by the Bay.