March 10, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Wonder, Wunder, Wissenschaft

Television series like Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of Life have triggered online debates about the relationship between science and wonder, wonder and religion, science and science communication. I began to wonder: should I not write a blog post about ‘wonder’? So I started to search, as I always do, trying to find some scraps of inspiration on the internet and came across a quote in a blog which said: “The world is a rich, fantastic place, and all you have to do is scratch anywhere, and there it is—but it starts with a belief in wonder and curiosity.” I began to scratch the surface of wonder itself, that is its superficial manifestations on the internet, and was drawn deeper and deeper into the issue. One should write a whole book about wonder and science and some people have done so (I found one on Wonder and Science,  one on Wonders and the Order of Nature, and one on Wunder und Wissenschaft; and for a short history of the awesome, which is linked to wonder, read Alice Bell’s blog on the topic). Here I can only scratch the surface.

Wonder and childhood pursuits

First some soppy personal tales. My childhood was in a way surrounded by wonder. My parents, like many others then and now, got me into fossil hunting, star gazing and botanising, but my favourite pursuit was admiring snails and worms. Then I went off and studied philosophy and French. I encountered the following quote when reading Kant’s Critique of practical reason (1799) (Reclam edition, p. 253, where obviously wonder and awe are Bewunderung and Ehrfurcht): “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.  This quote stayed with me forever; the rest of philosophy I gradually forgot, more or less. Although one should perhaps not forget that both Plato and Bacon saw wonder as the seed of, or gateway to, knowledge.

Wonder – between miracle, critique and curiosity

Wonder and awe go together and have their roots, of course, in religious thinking and talking, as the German word Wunder or miracle testifies. And many of the early attestations of the use of the English word wonder can be found in religious texts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. However, the enlightenment and the subsequent wave of natural philosophy turned wonder into a more worldly pursuit linked to natural history, philosophical critique and later science or Wissenschaft, that is, the assembly of knowledge about the natural and moral world, rather than the adoration of supernatural phenomena. Wonder was linked to having the curiosity and courage to think for yourself (sapere aude), rather than having the thinking done for you, and also to collect things for yourself and wonder what they mean.

Wonder and scepticism

This human and humane type of wonder can be seen as a first (emancipated) step into scientific thinking. Now, scientific thinking is hard, science is hard, so you can’t drop children or curious adults, straight into this pursuit, you need to gently guide them to it. Science communicators, those who open the door to people wanting to take a look at science, have to perform a difficult balancing act:  to incite wonder while at the same time making clear that wonder is not enough in science. As Carl Sagan’s wife Ann Druyan wrote: “The wonder of science is that we may find out that all of this is untrue. Faith is saying that you can know the outcome of things based on what you hope is true. And science is saying in the absence of evidence, we must withhold judgment.”

The Wonder Room and room for wonder

One of those holding open the door to science using wonder as a gateway is Matthew McFall, a magician and educator. He asks questions like this: “What would happen in a school if you had classrooms full of wonder? What would be the effect on learning and motivation if you focussed less on teaching knowledge and more on developing curiosity and wonder in your learners?  And, for that matter, what is wonder, what does it feel like to do it and why wonder, anyway?”

To answer these questions and also, in a way, as an answer to these questions, he set up a Wonder Room at The Nottingham University Samworth academy. This room, in a small way, allows ‘the rediscovery of wonder’ in a world where the teaching and learning of science in particular is generally stripped of wonder, magic, curiosity, imagination and ingenuity. It’s a room that reminds me of my childhood and my first encounter with wonder.

Such ‘rooms’ or cabinets of curiosity can and do of course also exist virtually online, but nothing beats getting your hands on a mammoth tooth (and I am just looking at one, a remnant from my childhood), an ammonite, a snow flake, a snail shell, a lady bird, or whatever, and just wonder. That’s science communication in action. Series like ‘Wonders’ don’t replace such hands-on wondering but supplement it, as we cannot all stand on distant mountain tops or swim around at the bottom of the sea. We can however do so vicariously, thanks to science and technology (and that includes books, such as those written by Jules Verne who contributed to the creation of scientific wonder). To misquote Wittgenstein, wonder may be like the ladder to science that you should throw away once you have climbed up it. But keep it handy, because you’ll always need it and would be lost without it.

This blog was partly inspired by a talk that Peter Broks’ gave last week (7 March) at the Institute for Science and Society seminar series about the history of science communication. And after an email from Philip Ball, who has written about curiosity and wonder, I added a few very useful links.

Added 30 May, 2013: Matthew McFall and Ian Gilbert have published A Little Book of Awe and Wonder!

Added 24 June, 2013, interesting essay on wonder by Jesse Prinz: How wonder works

Added 2 July, 2013, article on, sort of,  wonder, Wunder and Wissenschaft in Nautilus magazine

Added 27 January 2015: A bit of a counterpoint:

Added 10 August 2015 Lorraine Daston on modern science and the loss of wonder HT @trueanomalies

Added 29 September 2019 article by Jennifer Stitt on Rachel Carson and wonder: HT @andrea_wulf

Image: Snail on day-lily in my garden

Posted in history of scienceScience Communicationwonder