WASHINGTON — THE fact of the matter is, Christopher Columbus didn't really know where he was going.
When he sailed from the mouth of the Rio Tento on the morning of August 3, 1492, he believed ocean covered only one-seventh of the globe, with the rest dry land - was that not the conclusion of orthodox Christian authorities? He believed the Western Ocean narrow, and that Asia extended further eastward than it does. After all, many of his carefully studied geographies said so.
After four trips to the New World he died believing he had been exploring the east coast of Asia. But his path of discovery eventually led Europeans to the knowledge that their certainties about geography had been false.
"The great obstacle of man is the illusion of knowledge," says Daniel Boorstin, distinguished American historian and Librarian of Congress emeritus. "The great significance of the voyages of discovery was their discovery of ignorance, of European man's ignorance of the world."
This thread, says Dr. Boorstin, links the voyages of Columbus with the modern explorations of another kind of new world: science and technology. From Newton to Einstein the history of science is a history of disproved thought. Take nuclear physics. The atom was once considered a unity, the smallest element of matter. The very word "atom" expresses that, as its Greek root "atomos" means "indivisible."
Today researchers are busy in labs showing how the boundaries of the known are, in fact, false. "It's a parable of the problem of science in all ages," says Boorstin in an interview at his Library of Congress office.
But Boorstin worries that over the last 500 years mankind has lost something. Once "discovery" meant something physical, a throwing of oneself into the unknown. Now it's something undertaken by someone wearing a white coat and worrying about tenure or promotion.
There is a real difference in the mindsets of inventors and what Boorstin calls "questors" such as Columbus. Inventors focus on something specific, Boorstin says, something meant to satisfy an identified need. They work on computers that will react to the spoken voice; cars that get 100 miles per gallon of gas. They work on the imaginable. Boorstin speaks somewhat disparagingly of Thomas Edison, who in the course of research on light bulb filaments discovered certain aspects of atomic physics he did not care to further explore.
"Edison was not interested in knowledge. He was interested in payoff," says Boorstin.
Questors, on the other hand, do not apply the rules of cost-benefit analysis, says Boorstin. They don't really know where their discovery will take them, and they don't care. Theirs is a sort of high-minded vagrancy.
"Space exploration is the obvious parallel today," he says.
Today's technological explorations also differ from geographical ones in their pace. It took centuries for the full impact of Columbus's encounter with the West to develop. The automobile transformed transportation in decades; the transistor, in years. The obsolescence cycles of some computer parts can now be measured in months. And of course the explosion of the atom changed the world in the blink of an eye.
With this speed comes unpredictability. The irony is that the very power of technology means those who unleash it don't have much control over where it goes. "Even when men think they have a why for their technological revolution, as indeed Albert Einstein ... had, they are deceived," writes Boorstin in his book "The Republic of Technology."
And the complications introduced by technology are irreversible. The antique is charming and there are also modern-day Thoreaus in voluntary search of simplicity, but for most the world of the VCR is something to be entered into without a backward glance. "The march of modernity is ruthless," Boorstin writes.
Boorstin has himself turned to the role of explorer these days. Since leaving the post of Library of Congress director four years ago, he has been writing a successor to his thick 1983 tome "The Discoverers," which covered everything from development of the Babylonian lunar calendar to Michael Faraday's work in electrical fields.
The new book, to be called "The Creators," is due for publication next year. It's about artists and "the search to make," he says. After a career as a scholar of purely American history he turned to these sweeping works because he wanted to do something with a more global view, and could think of nothing more expansive than studying how man fulfills himself.
Perhaps with an eye to taking advantage of the publicity surrounding the Columbus quincentenary, "The Discoverers" is being reissued in a special two-volume edition. As something of a Columbus scholar, Boorstin decries the revisionist vision of 1492 now in vogue. He calls it that "vulgar anti-Columbus vendetta."
He doesn't minimize Columbus's role as an enslaver of native populations, or environmental despoiler. But he says much of the criticism seems to stem from a belief that progress can be carried out in a cost-free manner.
With advancement come problems. "The Garden of Eden must have been a very boring place," he says.
The world Columbus encountered, or discovered, or at least revealed to the West, has found its advancements in a different manner than the Old World, Boorstin says. To the nations of Europe, creativity or genius resided in the soul of one's own kind: The fulfillment of the nation rested in exhibiting the purebred spirit of Frenchness, or Germanness, or Italianness. To America it lay in mixing old national characteristics together freely, in new ways, at what Boorstin terms "the Fertile Verge."
This difference was the result of, among other things, Americans' openness to change and self-awareness. The very nation was a geographic verge, writes Boorstin in his book "Hidden History," with development flourishing not so much in old capitals as the cities on the verge of the frontier - Cincinnati, then Chicago, Kansas City, Denver, and Los Angeles.
Thus American government was formed on the political verge between colonialism and self-government, between state and federal power. Its industry flourished on a technological verge, with for instance German and Swiss gunsmiths breaking old-world habits and building new types of guns whose lightness and range better suited them for the American forest. The so-called "melting pot" of the cultural verge is today an American cliche.
Boorstin believes that new Fertile Verges will emerge in new epochs of American experience. These verges are developing even now, perhaps in America's unique education establishments, perhaps in its vast research and development institutions.
"Surely we are not the last New World," concludes Boorstin in "Hidden History."