Friends said that going for a walk with David Foster Wallace was “a show.” “He would just devour the universe,” one friend said. “He was always just gee-whizzing everything,” another said, “amazed by everything.” In my box of notecards, I have a “gee-whiz” section. Everything that follows comes from the “gee-whiz” section.
The Most Extraordinary Thing In The Universe
When you want to gee-whiz at something, you can’t go wrong turning to the brain or Bill Bryson’s writing or both. “The most extraordinary thing in the universe is inside your head,” Bryson writes in The Body: A Guide for Occupants. “You could travel through every inch of outer space and very possibly nowhere find anything as marvelous and complex and high functioning as the three pounds of spongy mass between your ears.” This object of pure wonder is 75 to 80 percent water with the rest mostly fat and protein. Pretty amazing what happens when these three mundane substances come together. “Just sitting quietly, doing nothing at all,” Bryson writes, “your brain churns through more information in thirty seconds than the Hubble Space Telescope has processed in thirty years.” One cubic millimeter—the size of a grain of sand—of neural tissue can hold two thousand terabytes of information, “enough to store all the movies ever made, trailers included.” Gee whiz. “If that is not the most extraordinary thing in the universe,” Bryson writes, “then we certainly have some wonders yet to find.”
The Energy Within Everything
Speaking of small things with huge storage, the most famous equation is Einstein’s E=mc². Energy equals mass x the speed of light squared. The speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second, so the speed of light squared is incalculably enormous. The equation means that energy and mass are two sides of the same coin—an enormous amount of energy is packed into every material thing. “More vividly,” Walter Isaacson writes in Einstein: HIs Life and Universe, “the energy in the mass of one raisin could supply most of New York City’s energy needs for a day.” Even more vividly, Bryson writes, “you contain within your modest frame no less than 7 x 10^18 joules of potential energy—enough to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.” Every material thing has this kind of energy stored within it. Gee whiz.
The Azure In The Air and The Wings Of A Dragonfly
In medieval Italy, the lord of Milan lived in the Sforza Castle. It was a square-plan and at each of the four corners, there was a tower. From the top of those towers, you could see far and wide. So in the top of those towers, you would often find Leonardo da Vinci, one of history’s great gee-whizzers. In his notebooks, Leonardo made to-do lists. Often, he tasked himself with finding answers to questions like: Why is the sky blue? How are clouds formed? How do you describe the tongue of woodpecker? How do the wings of a dragonfly flap? Can you capture an instant of motion? What makes the moon shine? Then he headed to the Sforza Castle towers and observed. “The dragonfly,” he found, “flies with four wings, and when those in front are raised those behind are lowered.” “I say,” he wrote, “that the azure in which the air shows itself is not its own color, but it is caused by warm humidity, evaporated in very minute and insensible atoms, which catches behind itself the percussion of the solar rays and makes itself luminous under the vast shades.” Pause and gee-whiz at Leonardo da Vinci intensely staring, for hours, at the wings of dragonflies in flight or the azure in which the air shows itself.
The Miraculousness Of The Pencil
No single person knows how to make a pencil. In 1958, the Foundation for Economic Education and its founder, Leonard Read, published an essay titled, “I, Pencil.” It’s an autobiography, written from the perspective of the Mongol 482, a pencil made by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company. Read had the idea for the essay after visiting the Eberhard Faber factory, where he was struck by how the supply chain wrapped around the globe. The wood—from a cedar grown in Northern California and Oregon. The logs—shipped to a mill in San Leandro, California, cut into pencil-shaped slats. The pencil-shaped slats—kiln dried, tinted, and waxed at the Pacific Gas & Electric Company hydroplant then carted to pencil factories across the nation. Once in the pencil factory, the graphite—mined in Sri Lanka by many miners and their many tools, mixed with clay from Mississippi, strengthened by a wax from Mexico, inserted in the cedar, and sent to receive six coats of lacquer. The lacquer, the paint that gives the Mongol 482 its yellow—“involves the skills of more persons than one can enumerate.” And if you thought it was rubber, the eraser—made by rapeseed oil from Indonesia, mixed with sulfur chloride, vulcanized by pumice from Italy, and colored with cadmium sulfide. “I am seemingly so simple,” the Mongol 482 writes. “Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.” As G.K. Chesterton said, the Mongol 482 says, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” “I, Pencil, merit your wonder and awe…become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize.”
The Wonders Do Not Cease
In the fourth-to-last paragraph of The Great Gatsby, the narrator thinks about the pioneers discovering the land we now call New York. “For a transitory enchanted moment,” F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, “man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” It’s an all-time sentence. But, as John Green points out, it’s not true. “The wonders do not cease,” Green writes. “It is our attentiveness that is in short supply, our ability and willingness to do the work that awe [and gee-whizzing] requires.”