While in China, one day on my random walks I came across a rickety little bookstore in a dark alleyway. Now it does seem a bit absurd to be wandering down dark corridors in a country where nobody speaks English, just to get to a book store… but I did. Amidst a range of cookbooks, comics and a few Charles Dickens novels, there it was. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Now I won’t say that at that very moment, finding an English copy of a classic that every scientist should own all the way in China meant something but the truth is, at that very moment I felt compelled to buy it. Maybe it was the scientist in me screaming out for something familiar as I left behind a research lab to start a new adventure abroad. Maybe it was my mind grasping for a sense of normality in a city where everything seemed strange, disorientated and foreign. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the universe whispering something. Months later, one night whilst exploring the bustling markets in Beijing, I wandered into another bookstore. It was a cold night, one which called for ear muffs, gloves and two pairs of socks. In an attempt to seek warmth and defrost my frozen toes, I decided browsing the aisles of a six story heated bookstore would be a good idea. Then I came across it – one of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best sellers – The Signature of all Things. It seems my adventures with Darwin’s famous book were not over yet.
The Signature of All Things follows the life of Alma Whittaker – a strong minded botanist, whose hunger for love, adventure and scientific explanation carries her through the period of Darwin, making her one of the greatest female taxonomists of her time. Born in the 1800’s to one of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia, we follow her life as she spends her childhood wandering through botanical gardens and greenhouses, in search not only for scientific knowledge but the answers to some of life’s greatest questions too. As with every great woman, despite her intellectual knowledge and scientific career thriving, she still yearns for something more… some kind of emotional attachment. As Alma delves into the unexplained behavior surrounding evolution, she falls in love with an artist who is the exact opposite of her. He is fascinated by the spiritual realm. Over 500 pages, we journey across the globe from Philadelphia to Peru to Tahiti to Amsterdam as Alma looks to both science and the universe in an attempt to answer long and difficult questions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Elizabeth Gilbert is an American author best known for her world famous memoir Eat Pray Love. She was born in Connecticut and earned a degree in the Bachelor of Arts majoring in political science from New York University in 1991. She then worked as a cook, waitress and subsequently a journalist.
EXCERPTS FROM THE BOOK:
“I will tell you why we have these extraordinary minds and souls, Miss Whittaker,” he continued, as though he had not heard her. “We have them because there is a supreme intelligence in the universe, which wishes for communion with us. This supreme intelligence longs to be known. It calls out to us. It draws us close to its mystery, and grants us these remarkable minds, in order that we try to reach for it. It wants us to find it. It wants union with us, more than anything.”
“Nothing is so essential as dignity…Time will reveal who has it and who has it not.”
“There is a level of grief so deep that it stops resembling grief at all. The pain becomes so severe that the body can no longer feel it. The grief cauterizes itself, scars over, prevents inflated feeling. Such numbness is a kind of mercy.”
Having a science background, it was hard for me not to become wrapped up in Alma’s life and feel her pain at being alone, yet rejoice and cringe as you realize the truth surrounding her scientific revelations. What I truly love about this book is how, Elizabeth Gilbert works in Charles Darwin’s discoveries and still brings to the forefront, ever so subtly the pain and sacrifice of all the forgotten women who were brilliant scientists.
There are so many reasons why I love this book – it was a English haven in a world of mandarin and yes, I will always believe that my decision to purchase both, Darwin and Gilbert’s book on my Asian journey was a subtle message from the universe, telling me that yes, there are answers to many of life’s questions. They will all be revealed in due time. Here’s to love, adventure and discovery. May we feel. May we see. May we find. It’s what we live for.