What is the one thing that you possess the most of when you’re a child? What makes a child notice the tiniest details in everyday things, details that you may be coming across every day and yet overlooking? What lies behind a child’s questions that leave adults stumped and imaginary worlds that defy all logic? It is the child’s sense of wonder. The explorer’s urge to reach out and touch the word that enthrals the heart and fills it with joy.
To the child, the world is fresh and new, to be minutely observed and inspected. The child’s mind has not yet been moulded and beaten into the wonder-less shape of an adult’s mind, compelled to think and act only in a predetermined manner. The child is free, unrestrained. And that is why childhood is a metaphor for freedom. In truth though, it is the sense of wonder that is the key to a child’s unadulterated joy. As we grow older, we lose the sense of wonder at the universe around us. The world becomes routine and mundane to us in our goal-post existence. We cease to wonder at the marvels of nature, at the marvels of human existence itself.
Preserving the sense of wonder and exploration is quite an art, and it is a trait that marks the most brilliant minds on this planet. When you are possessed with wonder, you immerse yourself into an experience body and soul, you are fascinated by it and drawn towards it, compelled by its mysteries and the desire to unlock them. That is what leads to the conception of the greatest works of art and science, the conjuring up of myriad marvels by humankind through harnessing the forces of nature. And once an invention has been made, once a theory has been laid down, over the ages it is educed to nothing but merely mundane formulas and routine gadgets, without our minds pausing once to marvel at the seemingly miraculous feats achieved by them, at the immense thought, effort and exploration that led to their manifestation.
Isaac Newton was one of the greatest geniuses in the history of humankind, the kind of man who solved the most perplexing scientific and mathematical problems of his time within a single night. An astonishing incident from his life, recorded by Carl Sagan in Cosmos, goes thus: Swiss Mathematician Johann Bernoulli , a colleague of Newton, once challenged his peers to solve an excessively complex problem called the brachistochrone problem, and he set six months as the deadline for the solution. Later the deadline was extended to a year and a half, at the behest of another contemporary of Newton’s, who had individually discovered the differential and integral calculus. “The challenge was delivered to Newton at 4 pm on Januray 29, 1967,” narrates Sagan. “Before leaving for work the next morning, he had invented an entire branch of mathematics called the calculus of variation, used it to solve the brachistochrone problem and sent off the solution.”
And yet, to himself, Newton was just a “little boy”.
This is what he wrote just before he died: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
And that’s what a mind full of wonder looks like.