Why a Sense of Wonder is Your Greatest Scientific Tool

My exploration into science literacy began with a sense of wonder for the world around me. Today we’ll explore wonder and why it’s one of the greatest tools both a scientist, and science literate citizen, can have.

Nature inspires wonder. Photo by Elena Prokofyeva on Unsplash.

It’s no coincidence that many great minds have commented on the value in having a sense of wonder for the world around you. Here are some of their thoughts:

Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.

Socrates

I was a young man with unformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything; and to my astonishment the ideas took like wildfire.

Charles Darwin

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.

Rachel Carson

The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.

Richard Dawkins

What does having a sense of wonder mean for a scientist today? To wonder is, in my own words, to marvel with curiosity. It means you ask questions because something about the universe impresses or astounds you. Why is this thing or phenomenon the way it is? What causes it? How? These are good questions from which you can formulate a research question, a hypothesis, or simply set out to learn more about something if the question has already been answered. This is how wonder drives both science and science literacy.

One of my favorite books that is in many ways about wonder is Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. His book explores some of the most wonder-provoking questions: Is there other forms of intelligent life, or are we alone in the universe? What happens when we die, and can we speak with the dead? Sagan treats each and every odd question and conspiracy theory like a legitimate scientific investigation, reasoning through with evidence and a healthy dose of skepticism (and a little hope that, just maybe, something extraordinary might be true). But as he says, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and in most cases, this evidence doesn’t seem to exist.

As science communicators and as science literate citizens, we can balance our wonder with skepticism without losing our awe of the universe and our world. There is no reason we can’t be amazing by the human body, evolution, and our existence even if we weren’t created by a divine being. There’s no reason to think less of the stars if they don’t have planets with intelligent life orbiting them that we know of. It’s inspiring to ask exciting, controversial questions. Until we have good evidence for or against, we shouldn’t try to make firm conclusions. We can say, “I don’t believe this, but when we have evidence to support it, I’d be very interested,” or, “I feel comfortable believing that we haven’t yet been visited by extraterrestrials – the evidence seems insufficient.”

Wonder can inspire and ignite curiosity to learn about the world. Indeed, wonder is what drove me to read popular science books in the first place. It’s important to cultivate it in children and young adults, and to retain that sense of wonder through college and graduate school. At least, I’m aiming to. This fall, I start the next half of my undergraduate studies at Oregon State University. I’ll be a microbiology major delving into research and STEM for the first time. Wonder about the microcosmos, the world of invisible microorganisms and their ecosystems, is what drives me toward my degree.

Stephen Hawking was another scientist who understood the value of wonder. In a tribute to his life on Space.com, ‘He Inspired Us All to Wonder’: Scientists and the Public Remember Stephen Hawking, they remember how Hawking valued and encouraged having a sense of wonder. Hawking’s commitment to being in awe of the universe is one of the (many) attributes that makes him such a memorable scientists. So I want to end on one of his quotes, which never fails to bring tears to my eyes:

Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.

Stephen Hawking

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