by Paul Schaeffer

My high school chemistry teacher’s favorite word was “wonder.” Nothing was done in class because some outside power required us to do it. After a while, we all knew that we learned what we did because it was worth knowing–and that’s why we wanted to learn it. The first day of class he taught us to use our sense of wonder in our observations.

“When you observe something, use all five of your senses,” he said. “Look at it, touch it, smell it, taste it, drop it on the floor to hear what it sounds like.”

We followed his counsels to the letter. Any chemical substance he gave us, we observed completely. We began to wonder!

The bad news was that occasionally he would let us taste a substance that was not conducive to our health (to put it euphemistically) . He did not want to shield us from real-life experiences, but taught us what unrestrained wonder could lead to. I no longer remember what chemical it was, but one day he passed out a white powder that we were to observe. We all dutifully tasted it (among our other observations). He continued with the lesson and our tongues started to go numb. Ten minutes later, he stopped in the middle of his lecture and said, “By now your tongues should be numb. I will be passing out some vinegar now which will act as an antidote.” And then there we were, all drinking small portions of vinegar to get our tongues working again! He had a deeper point: the pursuit of knowledge can be arduous and even dangerous.

The good news was that our sense of wonder, with his support, continued beyond physical observation. We learned about the pre-Socratic philosophers and the difficulties they encountered. We followed the quest of the Greeks to figure out what was the underlying substance of the entire world. We drank at the fountain of Socrates’ wisdom and continued into the world of Plato’s forms. All this time we were dying to know what really made up our world. And then we met Aristotle. We picked up his book Physics and struggled to follow his strict logic. We expected him to posit one underlying substance for everything as his predecessors had done. But no, he taught us that everything in this world is made up of matter and form.

The course did not stop there–we continued to learn about the development of the periodic table of the elements as well as different chemical properties. But we knew what the world was really made of. We understood from the beginning that the periodic table was a method of discovery and manipulation, not a philosophical interpretation of existence. So while we needed to understand modern chemistry, it was grounded in a classical understanding of the world. We were not stuck manipulating formulas for days on end, but rather our wonder drove us to think about reality more deeply and still drives me every single day.

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