Family Science Club

Pointing to the Author of Science


Looking north over Lake Superior

Image: Looking north across Lake Superior from Au Sable, Michigan, 2015, taken by Kevin Weaver

Wonder (December 2015)

When did you last feel a sense of wonder? Not the, "I wonder what he was thinking?" kind of wonder, but a sense of something great that made a chill run down your back?

We believe we saw the northern lights a few months ago while we were camping near Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. It was not the grand display of color and motion that we have come to associate with them. Rather, it was a wide curve of white light to the north, long after sunset, which slowly faded in and then faded back out. It was gone before we decided that it was probably the northern lights we were seeing. Still, I do not think I will forget it. Yet, I did not really feel a sense of wonder, either.

On the other hand, we really did feel a sense of wonder when we first saw Saturn in our little 5-inch reflector telescope. The planet looked small and the colors were very faint, but there was no mistaking what we were looking at. In fact, we and the two couples with us each had to look several times to convince ourselves that what we saw in the eyepiece was not painted on.

A few days after seeing the northern lights, we stood on the southern shore of Lake Superior after a storm. The sight reminded me of seeing the Atlantic Ocean in 1998. Back then I was in San-Pédro, Côte d'Ivoire. The distant horizon, water and waves looked similar in both cases. What I saw was very similar. However, I felt a sense of awe in the past case that I did not in the recent case.

Upon reflection, I find the different responses telling. The question is, where did the difference come from? The Bible says that we should have a sense of God's glory when we see the wonders of the heavens and the grandeur of the world around us. Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler and other great scientists of the past saw it clearly as they made their discoveries.

Today, many people not only do not see God's glory in the world, but they can look at grandeur around them and not feel wonder at all. We recently watched a group of young people hiking in the mountains of Colorado. Few of them looked up from chatting with each other, or worse, from looking at their cell phones, even as they were surrounded by splendor. Yet, while I drank in the beauty of those mountains, I have to admit that I did not really sense wonder.

I suspect there are at least two factors contributing to this. The first is deliberate contemplation. When we looked at Saturn, we knew in advance what we were looking for. We were thinking about how it is about 900,000,000 miles away, and more than 74,000 miles across. That thought made us a bit giddy when we actually saw it with our own eyes.

When I gazed south across the Atlantic, I knew that the nearest land was Antarctica, around 5,000 miles away. I thought about what it would be like to sail across that vast ocean. I compared it to the distance across the United States, which my family drove across when I was a kid, and tried to manage that it my head. I could not. I believe that is what really generated the sense of wonder.

Maybe we have been so spoiled by pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope that we no longer appreciate looking at the stars. Maybe we have been dulled to the grandeur of the mountains or the seas by statistics about geology, marine life, and global weather patterns. Astronauts and hurricane hunters still speak with awe about their experiences, but they have gone to extremes that many of us will never share.

The second factor I think about is that we have been told too much about what mankind has discovered, has learned, has conquered or has invented. We see pictures from the Hubble and are told about what a great invention it is. We look at mountains and the guides stress to us how geologists have figured out just how they got the way they are today.

We recently watched a video on fractals. The show could have dwelt on the wonder of how the physical world and mathematical equations coincide in these complex patterns. Instead, it emphasized how people broke the code, shall we say, and how we are now using fractals to better measure and predict things in nature. In essence, the kind of discoveries that produced awe and humility several centuries ago now produce a sense of accomplishment and even a bit of pride.

Our suggestion is to take a different approach as we consider the world around us. We should intentionally contemplate just how big/small/complex/elegant/etc. the things we are seeing really are. We should also take care to remember that people rarely made these things, control these things, or even understand these things all that well. Science is not something that should generate pride, but wonder.