Part celebration and part meditation, an elegant study of things that should awe and amaze us—and why we are capable of awe and amazement in the first place.
As Rachel Carson once observed, one of the great tragedies of adulthood is losing the child’s sense of wonder at the world. In this treatise, British writer Henderson (The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st-Century Bestiary, 2013), who admits to “no qualifications beyond curiosity and stubbornness,” advances many points that ought to give us all pause: the fact, for instance, that the human brain “is probably the most complex single thing in the known universe.” (Would that we used it better.) The author examines our capacities for and avenues of perception: how light arrives at the retina, how the protein rhodopsin helps process it into visual information, and so forth. Occasionally, Henderson overreaches to make a point—e.g. the image of a punch-drunk Robert De Niro in Raging Bull doesn’t help us understand the long-ago meteor strike that prompted an end to the age of dinosaurs. Still, blending biology, physics, cognitive science, and other disciplines, the author takes readers on a lively tour of evolution, noting that every life form on Earth “shares the same chemistry” and a common ancestor that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago. Another source of wonder is the orgasm, a blend of cultural matters and the reptilian autonomous nervous system. As to the nervous system, Henderson invites us to consider the human of the near future, one fitted with various prostheses that will extend our senses and our ability to take in still more wondrous things. As enjoyable as the text are the marginal notes, peppered with quotations on all sorts of matters from great thinkers across the ages: John Berger, say, who observes that hospitality underlies all our stories: “Deny it, and you deny all human worth.”
A wonderful book and just the thing for cogitators.