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The Power of Wonder: Modern Marvels in the Age of Science

The Power of Wonder: Modern Marvels in the Age of Science

The feelings of awe and wonder engendered by astonishing or mysterious natural phenomena are as old as humanity itself. According to the classical account of rationality, the end of inquiry — the production of a viable explanation — should also serve to diffuse these emotions. Yet, the cultural and spiritual significance of wonder and its psychological underpinnings seem to suggest a different story, one in which the rational and the irrational, nature and the supernatural, and science and religion keep trading places and eclipsing one another. Historically, wonder has also played an important role in relation to moral insights about human nature and self-transcendence.

In an age enchanted with its own scientific and technical achievements, our sense of awe and wonder has seemingly shifted from nature to science, as we marvel at our capacity to know and manipulate our natural environment. Nonetheless, the realization of the sheer extent of how much we still do not understand is not only humbling, but in many cases, the source of great wonder as well. These gaps of knowledge account for our continued interest in a range of scientific theories that are increasingly detached from practical concerns, while fueling the motivation and imagination of scientists working on the cutting-edges of their disciplines.

Led by Steve Paulson, Executive Producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge, this three-part series on the power of wonder and the role of marvels in the age of science brings together leading scientists and writers for an interdisciplinary exploration of the broader implications of wonder, from its role in inspiring scientific breakthroughs to the many ways in which it connects to aesthetic experience, religious attitudes, and ethical concerns. Beyond the fascination with modern marvels, can the experience of wonder offer a deeper understanding of ourselves and our timeless pursuit of meaning and truth?

Event Summaries:

To register for the individual lectures, please visit their pages below.

Thursday, October 10, 2019, 7 – 8:30 PM

Unpacking Wonder: From Curiosity to Comprehension

From the macrocosm of the universe to the microcosm of the human body, the more we discover and learn, the more our experience of awe and wonder is reinforced. How do we define the experience of awe and wonder? What is the historical and cultural impact of this emotion in the development of science and the standards of rationality? Social psychologist Michelle “Lani” Shiota, writer Caspar Henderson, and astrophysicist Alex Filippenko unpack the emerging science behind the emotions of awe and wonder.


Wednesday, December 4, 2019, 7 – 8:30 PM

Beyond Oneself: The Ethics and Psychology of Awe

At its core, awe and wonder appear to be powerful emotions that can inform and shape our attitudes toward ourselves and others, especially in relation to the larger meaning and purpose of our lives. What are the psychological underpinnings of these universal emotions? How does awe relate to self-knowledge and the process of self-transcendence we call “ethics”? Does this emotion lie at the root of the religious impulse in humans? Prof. of religious studies Lisa Sideris joins psychologists Jennifer Stellar and Piercarlo Valdesolo to explore how awe shapes our views on science and morality alike.


Wednesday, February 5, 2020, 7 – 8:30 PM

The Enigma of Life: Confronting Marvels at the Edges of Science

Einstein claimed that “the most inexplicable thing about the universe is that it is explicable.” Given this statement, which suggests that no scientific explanation can make sense of the situation of the human mind within the universe, what is the role of awe and wonder from the perspective of contemporary scientists? Ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, physicist Marcelo Gleiser, and physician Gavin Francis analyze the impact of awe and wonder on the mindsets of their scientific colleagues.


About the Moderator

Steve Paulson is the executive producer and an interviewer with To the Best of Our Knowledge, the Peabody Award-winning radio program produced at Wisconsin Public Radio and syndicated nationally by Public Radio International. Paulson has written for SalonSlateHuffington PostThe Chronicle of Higher EducationNautilus and other publications. His radio reports have also been broadcast on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. His recent book, Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science, was published by Oxford University Press.