It was February 20, 1962.
Squeezed in a capsule atop a Mercury-Atlas rocket and surrounded by an array of instrument panels, Colonel John Glenn was orbiting Earth, often reaching speeds of more than 27,000km an hour. In less than five hours, the American astronaut circled our planet thrice, catching three sunrises and sunsets in that short span of time.
If seeing the series of sunrises and sunsets was surely an extraordinary experience in itself, witnessing brilliant spheres of light was clearly a much more moving moment for the astronaut.
‘John Glenn was quite a religious man and he thought the luminescent globes might be a divine portent or sign,’ says bestselling author Caspar Henderson. ‘But in fact [the luminescent globes] turned out to be John’s urine that had been expelled from his spacecraft and had frozen into tiny droplets that caught the sunlight and shone brilliantly.’ Caspar is quick to clarify that there surely was something wonderful out there ‘and I don’t want to take away from it.
‘Let me be clear: I do not want to say that this, in any sense, undermines John Glenn’s beliefs. Nevertheless, there is something comical in that this beautiful and wonderful sight, part of an extraordinary experience and an expression of the technological divine, is a little bit ridiculous. Wonder can sometimes be like that.’
The desire to explore the amazing feeling – wonder – and a keen sense of curiosity and enthusiasm about life are what led Caspar to pen A New Map of Wonders: A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels, a book that the much respected Nature magazine listed as one of five best science picks of 2017. He says he chose to include John’s outer-world experience in his wonderful bestseller to show that ‘wonder is often not too far from bathos and humour’.
A subtle sense of humour is evident in the book that encourages readers to celebrate life. ‘There are many developments in the world that fill me, and I’m sure others, with a sense of concern, fear, anger and confusion. But I want to hold on to the fact that, fundamentally, being alive is extraordinary and should be celebrated,’ says the 54-year-old author in an exclusive interview with Friday.
Setting the tone of the book by musing on a patch of mottled sunlight on his kitchen wall, the writer deftly moves on, shining a spotlight on subjects as diverse as anatomy and space and everything in between while encouraging readers to see the world anew. And in wonder.
So, how would he define wonder?
‘I don’t think there’s a single good definition of wonder,’ says the Oxford-based writer, giving the question much thought before answering. ‘It is an experience of something that has not yet been defined; a sense of deep attention and being fully awake where one is both thinking and feeling clearly and well.’
Was this book a response to a fear that perhaps we are losing the ability to wonder? I ask him.
‘I think there’s always a risk of losing one’s sense of wonder and that can happen for many reasons; there can be developments in one’s personal life that can damage and even destroy it, either temporarily or permanently,’ he says.
Another potential awe-extinguisher is the information overload we experience today, a factor Caspar terms a two-edged sword. ‘Advances in science and technology can seem overwhelming, confusing and bewildering. But they, and the developments in culture and the arts, can also open the way to a new, refreshed and enhanced sense of wonder.
‘So I think it will be too simple to say that more and more information and more and more technology close down wonder. We need to use technology carefully and mindfully. When we do it, [information and technology] can enhance our sense of wonder at so much of life.’
The journalist-turned-author says he himself experienced several wonderful moments while researching and writing the book even though he was working largely in a shed in his back garden.
‘One of the high points includes a time I went to see a murmuration of birds known as Knots at The Wash, on the eastern coast of England. These birds perform an extraordinary dance – something like the movement of a school of fish. It’s well-known and beautiful. I’d recommend it to anyone.’
While the dance was breathtaking, what really took his breath away was the noise they made as they came in over his head. ‘At one point, there were thousands of pairs of wings, each making a soft sound, but collectively producing something extraordinary,’ he says, the sense of awe still palpable in his voice.
Knots were not the only things that left him wonderstruck. Caspar mentions other awe-inspiring pieces of information that he gleaned while researching his book: The fact that the last common ancestor of jellyfish and humans may have lived 600 million years ago; that the striated muscle fibres in jellyfish and humans are minutely comparable; that every time we breathe in, the air passes through, hold your breath, 2,400km of branching tubes into 500 million tiny sacs in the lungs before we breathe it out again…
The former aid worker says he is pleased that things that left him amazed and which he included in the book also resonated with many readers.
‘For instance, during a conversation with a remarkable computer scientist in Oxford, I told her about something I was researcing – molecular machines such as the Ribosome and ATP Synthase inside living cells. They are amazingly complex, self-making, self-repairing machines at work by the trillion inside us every moment.
‘This woman is very knowledgeable in her own field, but it struck me that she knew very little about these mechanisms, and I was glad to see that I had helped make a new wonder available to her.’
He says similar things happened on other occasions, and has been gratified to see wonder in the eyes of people at the talks that he gives about the book or in the comments they make.
Caspar sees the same kind of wonder and awe in the eyes of children. ‘It is commonly said that children lose their sense of wonder [as they grow up]. But I don’t think that is necessarily true,’ he says.
‘In societies from China and South Korea to Europe and North America, the educational system can be enormously demanding of children and teenagers.’
These demands can sometimes beat the curiosity and wonder out of children but humans have the ability to retain a sense of wonder, he says, adding that he sees a lot of proof of people who still have a sense of curiosity and enthusiasm for life even in old age.
‘There’s a lovely essay by [American biologist and writer] Rachel Carson about wonder and life. In it, there’s a tribute to a woman in her 80s who was unable to walk anymore but still wanted to get down to the sea shore every morning so she could see the extraordinary things there. She had not lost her sense of wonder.’
Has our addiction to devices robbed us of our sense of being amazed and wonderstruck?
‘There is increasing evidence to prove that we, indeed, are addicted to our devices. I, for one, really have a problem with my phone,’ says Caspar, with a laugh. ‘But, I think technology is a double-edged sword.’
While listing the benefits of smartphones – the option to discover and learn about things, connect with people across the globe, share information – Caspar says that many of the social media platforms ‘appear to be precisely built in a way to make us addicted; making us go back for updates, reassurances.
‘We all need attention from others, but social media platforms can abuse that need to their profit, not ours. I know a lot of people who do a digital detox at least once a week.’
The winner of the Roger Deakin Award and the Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award for his first work, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary, the author says that while current technologies provide us with rich and vivid experiences, they are nothing like what we might get if we get out and away, with friends or family.
‘It might be a great idea to get out into the outdoors where the subtleties and the details, the possibility to surprise and also for encountering things that are not human-made is always there. And that I think is absolutely vital. So, I think that’s absolutely important to bear in mind and try to limit our time before our computer.’
Caspar is at present working on a new project – a series of dialogues with people who are engaged with things that he believes are extraordinary.
‘I hope to do the opposite of TED Talks,’ says Caspar, ‘in the sense that you will not be spoon-fed one big idea, but rather be present at, and participate in, an exchange that is subtle, dynamic as well as highly enjoyable’.
Caspar Henderson’s A New Map of Wonders: A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels (Dh117) is available at Kinokuniya Bookstore in Dubai Mall and major bookstores in the UAE.