If you go through the biology lab on the ground floor of the Ashworth building of Edinburgh University, past the glass cases with displays about parasitic nematodes, past where they keep the jars of worms next to the compressor unit, climb the back stairs past the bad paintings of impossible dinosaurs that could never have existed, but which are so endearingly wonky that nobody can bear to have them removed, you come to a nondescript brown door which could be a broom cupboard or a lavatory, but which, if you open it with the key you have been given, will lead you into wonderland. This door leads to the Curator’s Room.
As you open the door it smells of formalin and dust. Inside, the window has been screened off by black plastic sheeting. Flick the switch and the lights buzz and flicker on. Rows of tall wooden rolling shelving units are packed tightly together, but if you push them apart like a bookstack they will slide back just far enough for you to squeeze in between. Then you can lose yourself for hours among specimen jars of every shape and size, mahogany boxes with hand-inked labels, cardboard boxes labeled ‘Rabbit Brains in Liquid (8)’, or another, ‘Diatom Ooze, Red Clay, Coral Mud, Manganese Nodules, Shark’s Teeth’. One box is labeled, mysteriously, ‘Biology Curator’s Group, Path of Rain Gods’. Here you can see a blindworm bleached and suspended in a spirit jar; a wax scale model of a fish brain on a turned ebony handle; a meticulous calculation of the mass in cubic miles of all the salt in the world’s oceans, written in a careful copperplate hand on a glass lantern slide; a three-day-old polar bear cub preserved like a pickled egg in a jar; a giant plaster model of an eyeball staring out through plastic sheeting fogged like a cataract. In a corner, propped like a broomstick, a narwhal’s single tusk.
It was my friend Mark, a professor of evolutionary biology, the partner of an old art school friend, who first showed me into the Curator’s Room. He was interested to see what, as an artist and writer, I would make of the natural history collection kept there. Armed with my camera and notebook I went to meet him in his office, where, with his boundless enthusiasm for ‘small, wriggly things’ he immediately started showing me pictures of his favourite small, wriggly thing, on which he has become a world authority: the tardigrade. These tiny, tough little organisms, which live in moss and lichen, look like plump, many-legged piglets under the microscope, and can survive heat, pressure, and radiation that would kill a person instantly. As Mark told me these facts his eyes lit up, as if fresh from discovery. A giant tardigrade sprawled across his chest, printed on the front of his t-shirt. He seems to wear a different one every day, collecting them from international conferences the way avid fans collect tour t-shirts of their favourite bands. I had to admit, the tardigrade, also known as the ‘water bear’ or ‘moss piglet,’ is rather endearing as small, wriggly things go.
Mark had spent the morning wading through the hundreds of emails in his inbox and fine-tuning the budget on yet another enormous research funding application. Delighted to have agood excuse to set this aside, he jumped from his chair to show me round the labs. At desks and lab benches, researchers and doctoral students were deeply absorbed in their datasets and pipettes. Fabulously costly machines were sequencing genomes, spewing out the reams of data that world-leading research feeds upon so ravenously.
All this was quite fascinating to me, but Mark was keen to show me the dusty treasures tucked away from the day-to-day work of the department, and which he found himself forever defending against the encroachments of managers who would fill every nook and cranny of the University with office desks and computers. The more visitors like myself who signed into the logbook, the stronger his case for keeping the collection intact. He led me through the maze of labs, corridors, and stairways to the anonymous brown door of the Curator’s Room. Ceremoniously handing me the key, he watched for my response as we walked in: a long, hushed ‘Wow…’ as I saw inside for the first time. We poked around companionably among the cupboards and packed shelves for a while, Mark looking for particular specimens he wanted to show me, while I, excited as a kid on Christmas morning, opened random boxes and lifted specimen jars up to the light. ‘Wow’. And again ‘wow…’
Mark called me over and pulled open a shallow drawer in a mahogany slide cabinet. As it slid smoothly out we both gasped, a slow, wondering intake of breath. Inside the drawer lay a series of slide preparations of tiny feathers. They lay on a purply-blue velvet lining, each slide clasping the finest wisp of feather between two thin leaves of glass. Labels written in a meticulously tiny cursive script read ‘breast of mallard’, ‘rhea’, ‘emu feather’. Another drawer held ‘gizzard of canary’, or ‘gizzard of budgerigar’. We read the labels out to each other, as if reciting haiku. And we kept saying, slowly, ‘amazing’. ‘Amazing’. ‘Oh. Amazing’. Each slide was a carefully labelled and mounted preparation, many bearing the names of the collector, date, location. Each feather as distinctive as handwriting, vanishingly delicate, yet held like a breath, for a hundred years, in a shallow drawer, in a cabinet, in a cupboard, in a store room, in a university. And once in a while, someone climbs the stairs, opens the door, opens that particular cabinet, slides out that particular drawer, gasps, lifts and turns that particular slide, holding it up to the light, smiling, and then carefully closes it again.
I have returned many times to the Curator’s Room, trying to find one specific object that will give me a ‘way in’, a focus, a ‘project’ to follow up. But I can never choose. There is always another box to open, or a drawer, or a jar to lift to the light, and there’s another quick gasp of surprise and the delight of discovery. What careful hand wrote that label 90 years ago? What are the stories around this object? Object is too dead a word for these specimens. They might be pickled or stuffed or bagged or dusty or faded or yellowed and long, long dead, but they wriggle with meanings. And perhaps my ‘way in’ is not to be found in the single object, but in the whole, in the Curator’s Room itself.
There are utilitarian arguments to defend keeping such collections; many of these samples contain information only now becoming available as technologies develop ever more subtle ways to unpick DNA. But is that the only point in keeping them? I am reminded of those 18th century experiments when Natural Philosophers would, in the drawing rooms of Enlightenment gentlemen, grow clouds along their sleeves, create miniature earthquakes and water spouts, send lightning down tubes or create miniature snowstorms; the sort of contraptions that Joseph Priestley would call ‘a very fine experiment’ while passing the brandy round to rouse the swooning ladies. But it didn’t ‘progress knowledge’. That wasn’t the point. The point was wonder.
Wonder is the soil that questions grow in. Little seedlings of curious wondering that, if tended carefully, will grow into fully formed questions. And as Einstein said, it’s all in the question. Once that has taken shape the business of answering it is more pedestrian. Because answering it takes discipline, and persistence, and doing stuff you really perhaps can’t quite be bothered to do, and sticking with it when the delight has somewhat faded. The practice of science is a reasoned, practical way of making sense of the world and our place in it. A systematic wonder. Its methods are methodical, orderly, laborious and disciplined. And yet, sometimes, they aren’t really, not at all. Sometimes its methods are poetry, dreams, and accidents.
In any case, the answer that comes might not be to the question just asked but the one before it, or even one nobody has yet thought to ask. The physicist and meteorologist CTR Wilson confessed that he built the first cloud chamber just because, like in the ‘experiments’ of 18th century natural philosophers, he wanted to try recreating the ghostly effects of sunlight on mists; the ‘glories’, ‘coronas’ and ‘sun dogs’ that he had seen while walking the hills in Scotland. He had no idea his invention would be used to investigate the behaviour of subatomic particles.
Answers can be unruly, inconvenient, disorderly, whimsical, barging their way in at some haphazard moment of unguardedness. Kekulé saw the structure of benzene in a dream. Fleming in his lab one day noticed the clear ring around the annoying mold that kept appearing on his glassware. Snoozing Einstein watched sunbeams dancing through his eyelashes and daydreamed of riding on a beam of light.
The state of wonder has been understood, used, and abused in many ways. To be brought up short with wonder and remain there, awestruck, was used by the Church to suppress curious and possibly heretical questioning. As Eve learned to her cost, to bite an apple from the tree of knowledge is to lose a state of protected, childlike innocence in the Garden of Eden. The King James Bible tells us in no uncertain terms:
Be not curious in unnecessary matters:
For more things are shewed unto thee than men understand.
To Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, wonder was ‘broken knowledge’. ‘No man’, he wrote, can ‘marvel at the play of puppets, that goeth behind the curtain and adviseth well of the motion.’ For Bacon, wonder was a state of naivety. The attentive, questioning, baffled but delighted stance of wonder was seen as a sign that we have reached the boundary of our understanding and we should seek to rid ourselves of this ignorant state as soon as possible by extending our grasp of the natural world. Wonder may stimulate enquiry, but when this enquiry draws the enigmatic into full view, wonder must then dwindle. Others have seen wonder as a state we must protect from naturalistic explanations that would, in the poet John Keats’ phrase, ‘unweave the rainbow’. But this assumes that wonder and knowledge cannot co-exist.
Must this always be so? Is wonder a naïf to be protected? Is it a state of innocence that must be left behind? Immanuel Kant noticed a difference between astonishment (Verwunderung) which fades once the novelty wears off, and a steady, contemplative wonderment (Bewunderung) which does not depend on novelty, and may even grow deeper with familiarity. The contemplative wonderment he described maintains the questioning and questing aspect of wonder, and yet rests attentively in the wonderful object without itching after the novel.
Curiosity has a restless acquisitiveness about it. Wonder, on the other hand, does not seek to possess its object. The object of wonder can remain itself, an ‘other’ to which we may pay rapt attention but never wholly master. In wonder we find these two aspects: curious interrogation which seeks to answer questions, and a contemplative appreciation of the wonderful object which seems to come to us like a gift. We are stopped in our tracks, stumped by a question we cannot answer: Why is the world? It’s an inexhaustible question that fuels an inexhaustible wonder.
In the wonderful object we find we can just about grasp a tiny corner of the ungraspable, wonderfully miraculous whole. The closer we look, the stranger and more wonderful things become. This wonder is not dispelled by the fragility, vulnerability, and brevity of living things, nor by nature’s apparent callousness towards its own creatures, but senses the vastly complex processes by which the natural world emerges, moment by moment, in all its absolute contingency. Wonder is appreciative, open, life enhancing. In wonder we acknowledge the irreducible otherness of nature. We crane towards it questioningly, longingly, desirously, knowing we cannot grasp it wholly. Wonder keeps our attention in and on things in the world, while poignantly realising their potentiality and fragility.
Wonder isn’t a useless luxury, an indulgence for the leisured classes. The political theorist Jane Bennett defends the ethical importance of wonder. It is not, she argues, a naïve escape from critical awareness of the world’s problems and injustices, but ‘marks the vitality and agency of a world that sometimes bestows the gift of joy to humans, a gift that can be translated into ethical generosity’. She equates wonder with love for the world, a love that engenders care. She thinks we should cultivate the capacity for wonder, and embrace those moments of enchantment which act as a ‘shot in the arm, a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life’. In wonder the world comes to us as an unexpected gift. Bennett suggests that the delight and joy of wonder spills its good humour over into our ethical life, to nourish an ethics based on love for the world rather than on duty and obligation.
I still love to visit the Curator’s Room, that wunderkammer on the back stairs of the university department. And I hope that, every now and then, one of those university research scientists, wearied by the discipline demanded by her task, will set aside her pipettes and datasets and emails and reports, leave her lab bench, climb the back stairs past the wonky dinosaurs, open the door to the Curator’s Room, open a slide cabinet, open a shallow, velvet-lined drawer, take one slender slide carefully between her fingers, and lift it to the light, smile, and say softly to herself, ‘amazing’.
But is a museum collection the best place to argue for wonder? After all, it’s filled with dead things in boxes, sealed away from the museum beetle and UV light that might subject them to the decay and change that is the core truth of the living world. The charm of the curator’s room lies in the incongruous gathering of a screw-top pickle jar, a polar bear cub, a narwhal tusk, and a delicate fan of tropical coral all crammed together in an unexpected room behind an innocuous brown door. A strange found poetry results from the listing and labelling, the improbable combinations, the sudden revelation of opening a box to find a collection of little black Tsetse flies impaled on rows of long pins, stilled for 150 years. Perhaps, after all, my weary researcher would be better off leaving those specimens in their jars and boxes and going outside in her lunchbreak instead, to watch the clouds endlessly forming and dissolving, the green crocus shoots breaking through the cold winter soil while a flock of migrating geese passes overhead. As Wordsworth commands in his poem ‘The Tables Turned’, ‘Up! Up! my friend and quit your books.’
Wordsworth famously composed his poetry while walking. His words were born in the rhythm of movement, on the hillside footpath, on the breath, in the mouth. But then he brought them home with him and wrote them down, stilling them for hundreds of years, kept safe, collected in the darkness between a closed book’s pages, tucked between other books on a library shelf, until one day someone opens that library door, lifts that particular book from the shelf, opens that particular page, lifts those words up again, and holds them to the light of the mind. What is writing but this task of capturing and stabilizing thought? What is a writer but a kind of curator?
To ‘curate’ is to keep, to capture and preserve. To take a lithe and living thing and hold it still, to place it in relationship with another thing long enough for some pattern to emerge, some wider meaning. I carefully pin these black letters in long rows. I move them about, trying to find the right placement, the right relationships, incrementally shifting them as close to the thing I am trying to describe as possible, knowing this can never be achieved entirely but that the attempt is necessary. Like the objects collected in the Curator’s Room and the data collected in the labs, the act of writing stills and stores the nimble movements of a mind as it opens into the world, sets them down, pinned to the page, bagged and pickled, but yet somehow still ready to spring again into life. So, yes, quit your poetry books, your pipettes, your datasets, lift your eyes from the page and the microscope, leave the Curator’s Room, the library, the laboratory, and go outside. But bring with you what you found on the page, in the data, in the spirit jar. Practice systematic wonder.
Thanks also to the Scottish Arts Council for supporting this project.
The term ‘systematic wonder’ is introduced in A General Theory of Love, by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon, Vintage Books, 2001.
Header photo of box of jars, Natural History Collections, Edinburgh University School of Biological Sciences, by Samantha Clark.