Photo By Georgia Pinaud1

The definition of
Kenshō from the Japanese dictionary site jisho.com2:


1. self-awareness; consciousness of one’s own character

Wikipedia definition

2. KenshoKenshō (見性) is a Japanese term from the Zen tradition. Literally it means “seeing (one’s) nature” or “true self”.. It is commonly translated as enlightenment, a word that is also used to translate bodhi,
prajna, satori and buddhahood.

We’ve all had that sensation at least once. You’re going about your day when suddenly, out of nowhere, you have a bright flash of self-awareness. The realization that you’re “that guy”. Most of the time it’s not even a new awareness, but a kick-in-the-butt level reminder of something you already knew about yourself. It’s also not necessarily a positive or negative realization, it could go either way.

Kenshō is a good description of this feeling. Satori doesn’t quite describe it. They are similarly translated, but satori is generally reserved for enlightenment that comes a little closer Buddhahood, which is definitely not what I experienced a few weeks ago. What I experienced was, however, strong enough to deserve a Zen word to describe it.

Sarah was away in San Diego most of the week at a business conference while I was at home tending to my studies and research while attempting to stay in the good graces of a teenage daughter (superhero level of difficulty). I flew out to meet her Saturday morning so we could have a quite weekend together.

I flew Southwest. If you have ever flown Southwest, you understand the weight of that sentence. Nearly last to board the completely booked Southwest Boeing 737-700 (translation: a total of 8 inches of legroom and a 14 inch wide seat), I was stuck in the center seat, bracketed by two other moderately large men. Thankfully, the flight stopped in Las Vegas, and I had the row to myself for the remainder of the trip to San Diego.

So I’m stretched out a little, looking out the window, enjoying the rare solitude in a Southwest Airlines aircraft when I saw it. All alone in the middle of the desert some 40,000 feet below me, it stood out like a Bernie Sanders liberal in Idaho. I think most people would have noticed it, perhaps even thinking it interesting or strange, but probably would not have payed too much attention to it.

Me? I recognized what it was right away. That wasn’t the point of my kenshō moment though. I got excited. I grabbed my phone and uncontrollably started snapping pictures. Lots of them. I think I may have even let loose an audible, excited little giggle.

I was reminded, in an almost violent realization, that I am a complete science nerd.

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generation System, aerial view (3)

What was it? The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System just off Interstate 15 at the California-Nevada border. The size of the passive solar sites on either side of the state line are impressive enough, but the solar towers surrounded by the mirror fields were truly beautiful (in a very nerdy way) site to behold.

Commissioned in 2014 with a construction cost of nearly $2.2 billion, the facility occupies 3,500 acres of desert, has a combined capacity of 392 megawatts, and is really an engineering marvel. It serves the electricity needs of 140,000 homes in California annually.

Ivanpah eastern tower (4)

Three fields of mirrors (called heliostats) reflect and concentrate solar radiation to three “power towers” where extremely high temperature steam is created to run Siemens SST-900 turbines. If you ever burned a piece of paper or wood with magnifying glass as a kid, you get the idea of what even minimally concentrated solar energy can do.

It’s really pretty amazing to see. Even from miles away the tops of the power towers are a little hard to look at because they are so bright.

Since this installation was designed and commissioned, the cost of photovoltaic solar systems have decreased markedly, so it may not be very likely that we’ll see too many more of these kind of power generation facilities in the future.

So why did I get so excited about this? This facility represents groundbreaking engineering and design, a novel solution to renewable energy, and stands out, to me at least, as a demonstration of the ingenuity of humanity. It is a physical manifestation of the power of science and engineering (along with a ton of money and politics) in America. This is also a good example of what made me decide to study engineering.

By the way, if anyone at BrightSource Energy happens to be reading this, do you need any mechanical engineers? I’m looking for a job, but I’d settle for a tour of the site. It would be like a trip to Disneyland for me….


1. Photo credit: Georgia Pinaud, Lille , France. – Own work, Public Domain,
2. http:/
4. Photo Credit: By Craig Dietrich – Flickr: Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, CC BY 2.0, /w/index.php?curid=28676343


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