Interview with Caspar Henderson

Turtle "skylights," molecules in water older than the sun, hidden senses... These are some of the revelations a reader will come across in Mesa Refuge alum Caspar Henderson's dazzling new book, A New Map of Wonders: A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels. Henderson tours the cosmos, from the birth of the universe to its ultimate demise, with pit-stops on Earth and the human body along the way, in a quest to find--and remember--just how amazing it is to be alive. 

Stephen contacted Caspar by email and asked him a handful of questions about wonder, awe, and why it seems so difficult to maintain a wondrous relationship with the world.

 

Point Reyes Books: How would you define wonder? Why should we cultivate this sense and why does it seem to be something so many of us continually need to rediscover?

Caspar Henderson: Emily Dickinson wrote that ‘wonder is not precisely Knowing/And not precisely Knowing not.’  She called it a ‘beautiful but bleak condition.’ I agree that wonder shares much with the experience of beauty, but I don’t think it’s necessarily bleak.  Wonder is an experience of something that has not yet been defined.  It is, among other things, an act of deep attention — a radical openness in which we think clearly and feel good, and connect to phenomena or people beyond ourselves.  What people find wonderful and why changes across time, culture and history. The experience of wonder is shaped, not least, by technology and technological change, though there are I think some constants.

I think we should cultivate wonder, in as far as that’s possible, because it’s a good thing in its own right, but also because it is important for individual wellbeing and for society as a whole. There is evidence that what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘peak experiences’ — moments of awe and wonder — make us better people, more thoughtful about the ethical dimensions of our decisions and demonstrating greater generosity and compassion.

As for the question of why wonder seems to be something so many of us continually need to rediscover let me say this. Surprise and a sense of possibility are often important factors in experiencing a sense of wonder, and as we age our and horizons change, we may become less open to experience, more set in our ways.  The Buddhists (to take one example) talk about the cycle of illusion, and how we can become trapped in ignorance, hatred and greed. I think we can all see the wisdom in that.   Wonder, I suggest in the book, semi-humorously, is like a pair of bolt-cutters to help us escape the trap.

PRB: A New Map of Wonders is full of references to both sciences and arts. Who and what were some of the inspirations behind the book? Why do you think it is so important to bridge the divide between the "two cultures”?

CH: Inspiration came from many different sources. This is a book of influences without, I hope, the anxiety! I love what I know of, for instance, the travellers and encyclopedists of the Islamic golden age. Take some chapter headings from Ibn Shahriyar's Wonders of India: Giant Whales; Another Whale; Yet Another Whale; Mermaids; Another Mermaid; The Woodpecker; A Sea of Fire; Dragons; Three thousand, one hundred and twenty kinds of snakes; Cannibals; More Cannibals; Yet More Cannibals; Shipwreck in the Lajbalus; Pirates and Taxes; A Lizard Prophesies; Crocodiles Bewitched.  Or consider al-Nuwayri's The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition which, as one commentator has put it, ‘encompasses everything from the dimensions of the sky to the forgetfulness of the ostrich.’  

Among the figures lurking behind this book (as well as my previous one, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings) are Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. The title, and the indeed drift of the book as a whole, is something by way a ludicrous response to Richard Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.  I am also inspired by authors of non-fiction and essayists such as Barry Lopez, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Robert Macfarlane and Rebecca Solnit, as well as by scientists who write accessibly about their work. The epigraph at the beginning of the book, which is from Democritus, is there thanks to Reality is Not What It Seems, Carlo Rovelli’s delightful book on quantum gravity.

As for the question of ‘the two cultures’, I think that a greater grasp of both the sciences and the arts enriches us as individuals, and is vital for a full life as a citizen.  An appreciation of the best of what is going on beyond our own relatively narrow areas of work, study or daily life can help us to make new kinds of connections, to assess the claims of others more shrewdly,  and to think about our own priorities in greater depth.  People asked the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge why he attended lectures at the Royal Institution in London, a premier center for popular lectures about science in his day.  He replied, ‘to increase my stock of metaphors!’  But it goes both ways: scientists and medics often take inspiration from the arts. I’d like to think that  ‘the two cultures’ is an increasingly obsolete phrase. Perhaps I am deluded or excessively optimistic, but I want A New Map of Wonders to be a small shove in that direction. 

PRB: There is a memorable passage early in the book that describes an episode that took place during John Glenn's orbit of the earth. Can you explain this episode and its relation to wonder?

CH: There was a moment during Glenn’s five hour flight three times around the world in February 1962 when his tiny spacecraft was surrounded by thousands of brilliant points of light. Glenn, a devoutly religious man, thought they might be heavenly sign. It turned out that the golden spheres were frozen droplets of liquid voided from his own craft and indeed, from Colonel Glenn himself.   

I chose this for several reasons. One was that — as I have already hinted —  wonder is often not too far from bathos and humour.  The space race was a pissing contest between the Americans and the Soviets as well as a journey into the technological sublime.  I wanted to avoid earnest, heavy-handed seriousness, which could be a risk in a book like this, but at the same time I didn’t want to detract from the wondrous reality of what that flight must have been like, and I hope something of that is conveyed in the rest of my retelling. To be clear, I do not disrespect Glenn’s faith, even if he was mistaken as to the source of the wonder on this occasion.   My account comes at the beginning of a chapter about light and sight, which are often the first and (we tend to think) most accessible portals for wonder, and one of the things I hope to bring to mind is the intimate relation between science and technology on the one hand, and our vision and experience on the other.

PRB: The book spans immense fields of knowledge, from the development of the human fetus to the death of black holes and, ultimately, the universe. How did you maintain your own sense of wonder while researching this project?

CH: There were times when I ran out of steam, but I really enjoy learning and this almost always gave me energy and determination to keep going.  It’s such a pleasure to explore things that you had hardly thought about before, and to think about how they might relate to your own life and the lives of others.  So that was the carrot. The stick was that I had signed a contract with the publisher and I would have had to give the money back if I hadn’t finished the book.

PRB: You quote a passage from Ramón y Cajal on the salutary benefits of direct observation. How might one turn from your book to the physical world to experience wonder firsthand?

CH: Ah, yes, this is when Ramón y Cajal — who was one of the great pioneers in the study of the brain around the turn of the 20th century —  is remembering his time as a medical student and seeing through a microscope individual blood cells circulating through a vein or artery and watching how they get squeezed as they pass through the narrow capillaries but spring back into shape afterwards. ‘The direct observation of phenomena has an indescribably disturbing and leavening effect on our mental inertia,’ he writes; ’a certain exciting and revitalizing quality altogether absent, or barely perceptible, in even the most faithful copies and descriptions of reality.’   For me, the take away is: get away from the computer screen and be out there in the real world. 

I recently went to hear Jaron Lanier, a founding father of Virtual Reality, talk about his new book, Dawn of the New Everything. He suggested that the big question is, can we make digital art so beautiful that it seduces Man away from mass suicide?  I think I can see where he’s coming from, but I don’t think that any experience mediated through technology, however extraordinary, can ever be sufficient for us to truly thrive. It may, at its best, be helpful, even very helpful, but it can never be enough.  To really live, we need the obduracy, strangeness and otherness of what is unscripted and bigger than our imaginations.  Perhaps saying this casts me as some kind of Luddite.

Many of the things I think are most conducive to experiencing wonder firsthand are activities that involve not just the brain, eyes and ears but the rest of the body too. Every person is different, but among the activities that work for me is to walk or run through open spaces where there are few people and where the land and the non-human is more alive to itself. Here, it can be easier to apprehend some of what is on the periphery of normal conscious thought. I also find that active participation in some form of music making with others is one of the best ways to access wonder. Both of these can be almost free — which is handy if, like me, you have a very small budget.

A New Map of Wonders is a crammed with facts, and I hope it gives a sense of joy in discovery, and that it is accessible to readers wherever they start from. It says that knowledge is good, a gateway to wonder.  But there is a sense in which knowledge is a koan. The real point is attention. The issue, as the poet W. S. Merwin puts it, is not ultimately understanding (or not only that), but our life, our one and only life.


Caspar Henderson is a writer and journalist living in Oxford, England. He was educated at Westminster School and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Published: University of Chicago Press - November 15th, 2017

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