Have you ever watched a toddler playing with something for the very first time?
Have you seen their eyes light up with the joy of discovery when that thing makes an unexpected sound, or comes apart to reveal a secret inside? They giggle with absolute abandon at the freshness and unexpected mystery of life that reveals itself at every turn – and they receive it all, unabashed by what another person may think. They are masters of the quality called wonderment. If we allow ourselves to be susceptible and open to it, their wonderment rekindles our own; it becomes an infection we want to catch, igniting our own delight at the freshness and unexpected mystery of life.
Wonderment is an extraordinary tool for any scientist to possess – it not only brings great joy to science and the beauty of discovery, it is also a very important aspect of our capacity to observe life, unhampered by what we have learned.
An essential aspect of wonderment is innocence – a way of relating to life, free of a set of beliefs about what is already known, projected, or presumed to be true.
Does that sound easy?
For a rare handful of people it is, but for most of us, by the time we reach adulthood, it is far from simple to do.
Part of this relates to the way we are educated in science. From the very start at school we quickly get that there is an awful lot to learn about science – there are names, classifications, numbers, formulae, processes – the list goes on. It is as though there is a huge mountain of knowledge we must scale, built of the every thing that we must memorise about life. Some people take pride in scaling it, stopping at various points along the way when they have accumulated the knowledge they need. Some reach for the very pinnacle, seeking to know all they can, and others are content to sit at the base, leaving science to others. It can seem, when we look at the mountainous body of scientific knowledge, that we humans know everything there is to be known about life. Along the way innocence and wonderment can get left behind, after all they don’t help us pass exams or get great jobs.
Wonderment – a tool for life
Through wonderment we have the natural ability to access what science truly is.
When we amass knowledge and leave out innocence and wonderment, we create a filter across our senses. This closes us off to the enormity of all that is not and as yet cannot be known. You can see this in the sceptics who believe they know pretty much everything there is to be known, and that the things we don’t know aren’t worth considering.
Yet – whether we are sitting in shadows at the base, or have completely dedicated our lives to scaling its sheer walls to the very peak, this mountain is but a mere speck in the vastness of an unknown that makes our human minds reel, and cling for certitude to our quotable knowledge, with its comforting facts and figures. When you have open access to your wonderment and innocence you simply smile, in appreciation and awe of that vast expanse of the as yet unknown…
The people who reject science are not immune from leaving behind their precious wonderment, when they forget that science is a vast beauty beyond reckoning. We lose a great deal when we throw out the baby of wonderment with the bathwater of a particular form of education in science.
The beauty of science is accessed by wonderment with its beloved and inseparable partner, innocence. To awaken them from their slumber, you might take some moments to watch a spider build its web. Allow yourself to wonder at how this creature, with no written blueprint, no protractor or setsquare, can create a structure of such magnificent precision and with such astonishing symmetry. All of this it accomplishes when it is a part of the web it builds, and it cannot stand back to admire its own craft, nor check its proportions.
You could pick up a fallen leaf and stop to observe it deeply. The fine tracery of vessels that gave it life run throughout its surface, so very delicately. A tree has no genetic heritage in common with us, yet it has a vascular system reminiscent of our own. The green colour of the leaf results from light sensitive chemicals. These chemicals in union with the Sun make the air you breathe.
You could even play like a little child, climb under your bed covers at night with a torch, and shine its light through your fingers and the delicate webbing of skin between…and discover that you are not the dense being that your eyes tell you are…in fact you are translucent. Yes light passes through you. You might even wonder what else passes through?
Any time you stop to take in the beauty and mystery of life, wonderment is at hand.
Wonderment flowed through the veins of the great scientists of the past, for what they were able to describe came from their openness and their willingness to observe what was truly happening in life – unhampered by what they were told to think….
Perhaps there will be a day when the humans who stand at the pinnacle of the mountain of knowledge will recall the words of Isaac Newton…and know that for all they know, that is only so because they stand upon the shoulders of giants.
They will raise their eyes and look across the great vista and humbled, see that what they have scaled is naught but the tiniest hillock in an endless range of peaks. In that moment of humility they may even sense the vast intelligence that is at play, a guiding hand that makes life all that it is…a hand we have denied since the dawning of the Age of Reason a mere few hundred years ago – but a brief moment in relation to the beginning of all life in this Universe.
Perhaps in that moment, we will all understand the most challenging aspect of wonderment, for released from the veil of human knowledge we can be nothing but humbled, as we stand as equals before the might of such vast, profound, Universal intelligence.