TOM CHESHIRE's new book, The Explorer Gene, chronicles how great explorations are merely a Piccard family tradition.


Say the name “Piccard,” and most folks will think of Jean-Luc Picard from the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation. The captain of the USS Enterprise actually was named after the real-life Piccard family: Swiss explorers who truly did boldly go where no man had gone before. British writer Tom Cheshire chronicles the family’s incredible journeys in his new book, The Explorer Gene: How Three Generations of One Family Went Higher, Deeper and Further Than Any Before (Atria Books/Marble Arch Press, $25).

“The Piccards had a unique way of looking at the world,” Cheshire tells American Way. “They were incredibly curious individuals. They wanted to explore and to test everything and had the ability to come up with a means to do it.”

First up was Auguste Piccard. In 1931, he piloted his own balloon 51,775 feet into the stratosphere, paving the way for today’s commercial air travel. Three years later, his twin brother, Jean-Felix, and sister-in-law, Jeannette, bested Auguste’s record in their own balloon. In 1960, Auguste’s son Jacques piloted the bathyscaphe Trieste to Challenger Deep, 35,814 feet below sea level. In 1991, Jacques’ son Bertrand became the first to circumnavigate the world in a balloon. This summer, he co-piloted the Solar Impulse, a solar-powered plane, across the United States.

While the Piccards have written about their adventures, Cheshire’s book is the first to explore the interaction among the generations: the ­rivalries, the idol worship, the inevitable rebellion. One of the strongest chapters examines Jacques’ upbringing, surrounded by the great minds of the time. “When your parents know Einstein and Curie and Heisenberg, the sense of what is achievable changes,” Cheshire says. “You naturally become more ambitious.”

Ambitious, yes. But in sharp contrast to today’s thrill-seekers and reality-show wannabes, the Piccards were never in it for the fame. “Auguste was a scientist,” Cheshire says. “He was not there to break records. He was only trying to study science and not to entertain.”

Cheshire’s deep study is an entertaining book that encourages readers to discover their inner explorer. “Exploration is a matter of attitude,” Cheshire says. “Once you start to wonder, ‘Why is that? How do I find that out?,’ then you are exploring.”