Thursday 30 August 2012

A century of words for the man of the century

You may have heard the story about philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal who, when penning a letter to some Reverend Fathers, wrote: 'I'm sorry this is such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one'.

It's a quote that turns up frequently and often ascribed to others, including Winston Churchill, Cicero, Mark Twain, Voltaire, Albert Einstein, Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde. However, it was Pascal who made the comment in his Lettres Provinciales (1656-1657), no. 16. He actually wrote: 'Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte' ('I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short'). What he was saying, of course, is that it's easy to ramble on; it takes effort to be succinct.

The reason I mention it is that yesterday evening I was invited to write 100 words on Neil Armstrong for today's edition of the London Evening Standard newspaper. One hundred words. It sounds a lot but it really isn't. How could I encapsulate what I feel about Armstrong and his achievements in so few words? It took me an hour of editing, culling and re-writing to arrive at something that summed up what Armstrong meant to me ... with a little bit of humour added in (I can never write anything that's 100% serious).

So here they are; my 100 words for Neil Armstrong. Sorry it took so long to explain; I didn't have time to write a short explanation.


Imagine this job description: ‘You will be required to sit on top of 3000 tons of explosives and steel and be blasted across 250,000 miles of freezing vacuum to the Moon. You will plant a flag, grab some rocks, and fly home. You will receive standard US Navy pay for the duration of the trip. The computer that will help you calculate the journey has less processing power than a musical birthday card.’ Would you take the job? Neil Armstrong did. And he did it solely to expand the frontiers of human knowledge. That’s why he should never be forgotten.

(100 words)


  1. I love your encapsulation! A very different tribute, but a very true one

  2. A very fitting eulogy!

  3. Brilliantly written.