The sense of wonder
As a university professor teaching fine arts, I normally read art books to prepare for my lessons; philosophy to challenge myself intellectually, especially when I took it up for my master’s degree and, now that I’m back again in graduate school enrolled in cinema studies, books on film history and aesthetics.
Whenever I have time to spare, I read contemporary fiction. And yet, while this may be the only reading that is not required of me, I have to admit that, recently, I no longer pursue it simply for entertainment or pleasure. More than great stories, the best novels are themselves literary explorations of philosophical and artistic questions.
Between this regular diet of tedious readings, I snack on something totally different from what the right side of my brain craves: I read science. No, not the technical stuff like Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species” or Sigmund Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams” which I tried to read but could not get beyond 10 pages.
I prefer science books written for the laymen, particularly young readers. It amazes me how the best of them are able to explain difficult topics such as astrophysics and microbiology in simple English.
For example, Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”, Isaac Asimov’s “The Universe: From Flat Earth to Quasars” and Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” could actually be breezy. Introspectively, those books made me question my childhood faith. But socially, I started to hang out with college nerds just so I could join their stargazing picnics.
Some of these books exemplify recent trends of science writing’s crossover to literature, like Lewis Thomas’s “Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher” which gave me the habit of turning stones during a trek if only to find out what “niche” they hide inside and Rachel Carson’s “The Sea Around Us”, whose poetic description of the relationship between the moon and the tides haunts me to this day and kept me dreaming of the next chance to sleep on the beach.
Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Barry Commoner’s “The Closing Circle” exposed the dangers of pesticides and the problems of energy, thus helped to ignite the environmental movement.
Catching up on the debate over the American military bases in the Philippines during the last years of the Cold War, I read Jonathan Schell’s “The Faith of the Earth” with a strong sense of existential dread over the prospect of a “second death” or total annihilation of humanity in a world that may continue to exist after a nuclear Armageddon. This would soon become the topic of a paper I submitted in grad school philosophy class.
When my daughter was growing up, I brought her science books for little children. I also started collecting Time’s Nature Library Series hoping that, like me, she would pick up such volumes as “The Mind”, “Evolution” or “The Universe” as I did before in the public library. I bought books about space exploration, dinosaurs and human anatomy but like most others I ended up reading them more than my child did.
Since college, I have developed a habit of keeping a collection of clippings that include anything I found interesting about science in newspapers or magazines. I classified them into different folders, labeled on the spine and kept alongside my science books in a cabinet with little sliding glass covers.
In the same cabinet, I also display my small collection of scientific ephemera: a macaque’s skull from Palawan; dried acorns from Malaysia; volcanic rocks from Taal and Mayon; starfish, corals and shells from Surigao; some strange rocks from a beach in Normandy, etc.
My daughter’s lab gown, 3D glasses and makeshift goggles we made out of old film negatives so we could stare at a solar eclipse are also kept there. But perhaps the most important book kept in our science cabinet is a worn-out copy of “Science and Health for Filipino Children”, a 1963 public school textbook for grade six students.
It was this book that sparked my interest in science back in grade school, reading a copy I had saved from a heap of “discarded” books that our teacher ordered us to burn (we ended up hiding all of them). This was not the general science textbook we were required to read, but I read it anyway. It was this book that led me to ask some of the most serious questions that continue to bother me today.
Reading this book was never difficult for me. In fact, I enjoyed it immensely. I felt relieved at every mystery it seemed to solve, from the simplest questions like how electricity works or why it rains to the more disturbing questions like whether there is life beyond our planet or how this universe came to be.
We try to escape the complexities of adult life by reliving our childhood. I renew my sense of wonder by reading general science.
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