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Book review: ‘A New Map of Wonders’ by Caspar Henderson

Understanding the science behind awe-inspiring natural phenomena makes them no less wonderful

Sometimes it takes extreme or unusual circumstances to make ordinary things seems wonderful, never a truer word has been spoken, or alluded so perfectly to the fact that the ordinary is, in fact, quite wonderful. Last month, just as the weather was starting to turn, I was cycling into work across a fairly average field when I witnessed something truly wonderful – that is, something which filled me with wonder. The field around me, draped in early morning dew and bathed in the light from the slowing rising sun, was filled with hundreds of glittering, iridescent, cobwebs. These ordinary objects, dew drops, unsullied spider webs, and the rising run, had connected for a brief, perfect moment in time, to create a breathtakingly beautiful scene, and I stopped for a moment to bathe in the wonder that surrounded me. Each subsequent early morning’s ramble through the field thus far has been too cloudy, too dry or too warm to recreate this moment and as such in comparison, quite disappointing.

‘A New Map of Wonders: A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels’ (Granta, £20, ISBN 9781783781331), written by journalist Caspar Henderson, owes its existence to a similar experience, a time in which the heavens aligned to create a scene which momentarily struck the author with a sense of wonder. For Henderson, this was the presences of a brilliant yet mysterious pool of early morning sunlight playfully cast across his kitchen ceiling. A little investigation soon revealed the source – the slow-rising sun bouncing randomly off several reflective surfaces before streaming through the undulating branches of a nearby tree – but did nothing to take away the wonder of the moment. This experience inspired Henderson to think more closely about the nature of wonder, that elusive, mysterious reaction that, despite being so easily destroyed, imparts a sense of meaning in the eye of the beholder, and is so often a condition used in defining a life well lived.

This book is, quite literally, a ‘map of wonders’, which charts the course for a journey through all that is fascinating and awe-inspiring in the world. At the helm of the ship sits Henderson, who, despite having spent the majority of his time writing this book in his own garden shed, delves into an exploration of wonder with all the passion and wanderlust of a modern-day Christopher Columbus. Henderson plots the ordinary, before giving it an extraordinary spin, providing evidence of the innumerable wonders hidden in plain sight. From light itself comes the mind-bending concept of the speed of light, as well as light refraction, the simple beauty of dappled sunlight, such as that on the ceiling of Henderson’s kitchen, and that most precious of wonders, the rainbow. Explaining the awe-inspiring, Henderson says, does not make it any less wonderful, with full-moons, rainbows and meteor showers continuing to delight and amaze people the world over despite their well-documented scientific explanations.

The book is mapped out using the old idea of seven wonders, a plan which, Henderson says, is both familial and manageable, and explores each wonder in turn through the principle of emergence, in which the first wonder is implicated in the second and so on with light giving way to life, love and learning. Often rooted in physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering, the book draws too on philosophy, religion, culture and history and how these subjects combine and contrast to help give meaning to the world. Through this Henderson explores the origins of the universe, the behaviour of light, and the intricacies of the human body, delving into wonders past, and present, before paving the way for those yet to come with the emergence of technology, and the predication of a change in all that we consider wonderful.

‘A New Map of Wonders’ is a literary depiction life’s modern miracles; the scene is one of chaotic harmony, imparted through a voice that though playful and humorous, is always tenderly sincere. The result is a beautiful, enlightening book that is sure to inspire even the most jaded of readers to take a different look at the world around them. Any attempt to put into words the nature of wonder itself seems bound to fail, but this is, without a doubt, a glittering success. 

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