At the center of the Peabody Museum’s Great Hall is an enormous Brontosaurus. (It’s called an Apatosaurus, and has been for 100 years now, but hey, let’s be anachronistic.) Its body is a roller coaster: the head rises 30 feet into the air, and after a rollicking dip and swell of its spine, the tail drops to the ground, 70 feet later. The bones collectively weigh six tons; every ligament is braced by a steel foundation ridging the underbelly. At my height — 5’11” — I don’t even reach its knee joint. The dust-red gravel display housing the Brontosaurus also contains other dinosaurs — a Stegosaurus, a Camarasaurus and a Camptosaurus — but the three of them are more diminutive and more compact, and all have their heads slightly lowered, as if bowing in deference to the Sauropod centerpiece towering above them.
Swarming the Brontosaurus display are the children of another species, Homo sapiens, that have left their reverence at home. About 15 kids, between the ages of four and 10, play in the Great Hall: they jounce each other, slide their digits along the railing, thump the glass cases (as if telling the skeletons to arise from their slumber), and crane their sizable heads to adjudicate exhalations about the fossils: “Whoaaaa!”; “Awesome!”; “Look at this: the fiercest animal to exist in the world!”; “Ooooh that big one! That’s cool!”; “Look at its big tail! That’s a big tail!”; “Come here everybody come here! Come hereeeeee!”
Some of the kids ask formative, thoughtful questions: “How did they put them together?” while others can’t wait to boast their knowledge: “That’s a baby one, that’s a daddy one, and that’s a MOMMY one!”
Some come in frightened: “I’m scareddddd — wait, they don’t move? Daddy, I like it!” but soon enough, all of them become enchanted with the exhibits. They skip, race and pirouette from Claosaurus to Hesperornis, from the Permian Period to the Jurassic, from teacher to parent, jabbing at talking electronic displays, manhandling slices of petrified wood, and stretching their arms until their shoulder bones seem to pop, trying to match their wingspan to the length of a Phytosaur skull.
The ultimate attraction is the head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. With 50 stalactite teeth and braised, molten skin, the skull beams, daring the kids to peek inside. At one point, there are six pressed against the skull; all are neophyte paleontologists. One tries to explain what they’re seeing: “Everyone! This is the E-Rex-ous, I mean, T-Rex-ous, I mean, T. Rex head … ” Most of them, though, are leaning forward and murmuring to themselves, their eyes squinty with concentration or wide-open with amazement, and in the aggregate their faces are etched with a this-isn’t-possible-how-can-this-be-possible look.
That look is what I’m missing from Yale.
Let’s face it: dinosaurs are epically, epoch-ally cool. They are thought-provoking, awe-inspiring and surreal. But so is the life of Kant, the KGB and partial derivatives. In lectures and dining-hall conversations, I’ve collected tidbits of knowledge about the menswear fashion collection in Milan, how to focus on a pistol’s front-sight, and the principles of operant conditioning. When I learn, facts scurry down a neuron tree and my synapses fire; neurotransmitters are released, and my forebrain, I like to imagine, grows a little denser. But nowadays, I take in knowledge, then simply acknowledge its existence. I’m missing something: my sense of wonder.
I used to be like those kids in the Peabody. My parents took me to the San Francisco arboretum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where I would act my age: my legs would sprint and seize all the way down aisles of exhibits. Those days, learning was heroic. Foliage would fall from effervescent deciduous trees, and I would collect them to weave hats. Bright canvases were puzzles for my double-crossed eyes. Learning the biology of a hammerhead shark became crucial to my attempts at inter-species communication. Everything was fresh, raw — new material immediately savored, ingested, and churned.
In college, I don’t have that same wonder. Don’t get me wrong — I’m still blown away by certain facts, and still appreciate the complexity of the human opus — but the most I can manage is a feeling of tempered, narrow amazement. The feelings aren’t comparable. If I had a sense of continuous wonder, I might be bouncing off the walls, much like my little sister is now, unable to function properly. But maybe it would make my learning more salient, more enriching, and, well, more fun.
When I leave the Great Hall, I tilt my head back to see the Brontosaurus’s head. How smart was a Brontosaurus? Did it ever feel a sense of wonder? Probably not, I think — but my own sense of wonder — well, I’d better discover how to revive it, before it’s as fossilized as the Brontosaurus.
Peter Lu is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs every Thursday.