Why Science Needs Wonder
The day I realised the potential of the internet was infused with wonder - not at the network itself, however handy it would become for shovelling bits, but at what it revealed as I crowded round a screen with the other staff of Nature magazine on 16 July 1994. That was the day when the first piece of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smashed into Jupiter, turning our cynicism about previous astronomical fireworks promised but not delivered into the carping of ungrateful children. Right there on our cosmic doorstep bloomed a fiery apocalypse that left an earth-sized hole in the giant planet’s baroquely swirling atmosphere. This was old-style wonder, awe tinged with horror, at forces beyond our comprehension.
Aristotle and Plato didn’t agree on much, but they were united in identifying wonder as the origin of their profession. As Aristotle said, “It is owing to their wonder that men … first began to philosophise.” This idea appeals to scientists, who frequently enlist wonder as a goad to inquiry. “I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky,” wrote Carl Sagan in 1985, locating in this response the stirrings of a Copernican desire to know who and where we are.
Yet that is not the only direction in which wonder may take us. To Thomas Carlyle, wonder sits at the beginning not of science, but of religion. That is the central tension in forging an alliance of wonder with science: will it make us curious, or induce us to prostrate ourselves in pitiful ignorance?
We had better get to grips with this question before we too hastily appropriate wonder to sell science. That is surely what is going on when pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope are (unconsciously?) cropped and coloured to recall the sublime iconography of Romantic landscape painting, or the Human Genome Project is wrapped in biblical rhetoric, or the Large Hadron Collider’s proton-smashing is depicted as “replaying the moment of creation”. The point is not that such things are deceitful or improper, but that if we want to take that path, we should first consider the complex evolution of the relation between science and wonder.
For Sagan, wonder is evidently not only an invitation to be curious, but a delight; it is wonderful. Maybe the ancients, too, felt this; the Latin equivalents admiratio and mirabilia seem to have their roots in an Indo-European word for “smile”. Yet this was not the wonder enthusiastically commended by medieval theologians, which was more apt to induce fear, reverence and bewilderment. Wonder was a reminder of God’s infinite, unknowable power - and, as such, it was the pious response to nature, as opposed to the sinful prying of “curiosity”, which Saint Augustine damned as a “lust of the eyes”.