Phyllotaxis. Unless you’re a botany major, five will get you ten you don’t know what this is. To help make your day, I’ll tell you. It is the study of leaf patterns. Believe it or not, some folks do this full-time. Such as plant physiologist Munetaka Sugiyama. His research is focused on molecular mechanisms of dedifferentiation, organ regeneration and autonomous pattern formation in plants. That might not get you jumping up and down with excitement, but it seems to for Sugiyama and his associates at the University of Tokyo School of Science.
Might you wonder why this would this interest Maddie Burakoff, an intern with Smithsonian magazine who is a student at Northwestern University studying journalism and Spanish? She wrote an article titled “Decoding the Mathematical Secrets of Plants’ Stunning Leaf Patterns.” She quotes Sugiyama: “We don’t think our study is practically useful for society.” I respectfully disagree
To be sure, for the average Jack or Jill a greater understanding of phyllotaxis will not help pay the bills, increase the value of one’s resumé, or entertain the grandkids. But I wonder. Munetaka wonders. Maddie wonders. That’s precisely the point: wonder.
Socrates said, “Wisdom begins in wonder.” He misquoted Plato who actually said, “Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” Philosophy, knowledge, understanding, wisdom – take your pick – they all begin in wonder.
Our good friends Merriam and Webster define wonder as: exciting, amazed admiration or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one's experience.
Excitement, amazement, astonishment, awesomeness, newness. These are experiential qualities that contribute to making life worth living. Indeed, one can life a life largely devoid of such, but by my lights that would be more mere survival than living.
To wonder and to explore the depths of wondering is intrinsically enlivening. That might not be practical help for fixing a broken light switch, but simply wondering, searching, learning, and growing enlightens life all on its own. A computer model of spiral-patterned plants predicting the super-dominance of the Fibonacci spiral might not set your innards all aglow. But wondering about, and subsequently exploring, something is life-enhancing. God, astrophysics, quantum mechanics, human anatomy, ancient Greece . . . the list is endless.
What can I explore today? I wonder.