You are here

Wonder and Awe: The Scientific Experience of Ultimates

1977

When we inquire of the thoughtful scientist about his first motivation for doing science, we practically always hear him speak of a sense of wonder. Thus we can begin our study of the all-encompassing experience of science by analyzing the role played by wonder in the scientific process. But wonder is formally defined in a threefold way: as something that surprises and attracts, something that causes admiration and delight, and something that leaves one astonished and with a sense of questioning. Accordingly, this threefold division offered by the semantics of wonder may serve as a guideline in our attempt to understand why science comes about and to what conclusions it leads.

The Surprise at Natural Order

To begin from the beginning, what triggers the scientific endeavour in the first place? In other words, how is the human mind prompted to seek for that knowledge which, in the end, will constitute science? If we ask those who know from experience, namely the creative scientists themselves, their answer is unanimous. What first moves them to do science is nothing but a sense of surprise.

Psychologically speaking it is obvious that man needs to be surprised in order to start to do science. For science is a search for new knowledge. But no one searches for new knowledge unless one is surprised at the way things are, instead of taking them for granted. The popular consensus puts it unequivocally: ab assuetis non fit passio, assueta vilescunt. What we are accustomed to does not strike us, it appears to us trivial. Science actually begins when one is struck by the fact that the world of observation is the way it is. That is to say, the first dawning of science is an awareness of novelty and unexpectedness experienced in connection with one’s everyday world. This surprise is of a cognitive type, in a twofold sense. The first sense consists in the sudden realization that, despite its being knowable, the world is not yet known to man. What moves man to do science, then, is the attraction to explore an intelligibility that is obviously there, but has been overlooked or ignored so far.

For an example of the role played by wonder in giving rise to science, let us turn to the testimony of two of the most creative contributors to quantum physics, Bohr and Heisenberg. As is well known, this branch of science is characterized by highly abstract mathematical formalism and deals with entities that cannot be directly seen by man. Thus one would expect that the researchers who dedicated their lives to it were motivated by some recondite reason, especially by mathematical ingenuity and concern with logic. And yet, when we ask Bohr and Heisenberg why they became quantum physicists, their candid answer is: a sense of wonder. They were surprised that the things of ordinary experience were the way they were, they were surprised that people did not find anything striking in this situation, and thus they decided to dedicate their lives to the task of finding out. Heisenberg gives a particularly charming analysis of this state of affairs.

When he first met Bohr, he was somewhat suspicious of the latter’s motivation in doing science. Bohr was continually speaking in terms of modelistic and planetary representations of atoms. Was he perhaps not moved by the subconscious desire to impose a rationalistic-mechanistic scheme of nature, rather than just trying to find out how things were? Bohr was quick in dispelling the suspicion from the mind of his youthful interlocutor. Recalling the genesis of his famous theory, he rejected emphatically the idea that his starting point might have been the desire to mechanize the structure of the atom. In his own words: “But for me the starting point was the stability of matter which from the standpoint of traditional physics is pure wonder” [1]. Going on to explain his thought, Bohr stressed that the stability of matter is something quite obvious but at the same time very surprising. The obviousness consists in the fact that matter always presents the same features to man. The surprise was caused for him by the fact that no one had as yet been able to understand why matter was stable. For, on the basis of the hitherto accepted Newtonian interpretation of nature, the stability of matter was simply not understandable.

By stability I mean that the same substances always occur with the same properties, that the same crystals are formed, that the same chemical compounds arise, etc… There is then in nature the tendency to produce specific forms — I employ the word forms now in the most general sense — and to always reproduce anew these forms, even when they have been disturbed or destroyed… All this is by no means self-evident, but on the contrary it seems not to be understandable when one accepts the axioms of Newtonian physics.

As regards Heisenberg himself, he relates in detail his first motivation for doing physics. The basic question (Grundfrage) was to know “why they are, in the material world, forms and qualities that always recur” [2]. The examples that he gives are homely. He speaks of the surprise generated by the fact that water always presents the same characteristics, despite the different processes by which it may be produced such as melting of ice, condensation of vapor, or burning of hydrogen. To him it was surprising that people had been taking all of this for granted.

In traditional physics this has always been presupposed, but never understood… In this area, then, natural laws of quite different kind must be at work to account for the fact that atoms arrange themselves and move always in the same ways, so that always the same substances with the same stable properties arise... Here, then, an enormous virgin country discloses itself to us in which man perhaps for decades will be able to discover new interconnections.

To sum up, what first moves man to become a scientist is not, as frequently stated, organized skepticism or a sense of rebellion against hitherto accepted views. Conceptions of the kind do not apply to the beginning of science because they are just negative and, as a consequence, incapable of bringing about any new knowledge about the world. What animates the aspiring scientist, on the contrary, is something quite positive. It is the surprise that arises from the direct experiential contact with nature. This surprise lies in the awareness that nature is there to be known. The scientist is the person who takes such an awareness seriously and, as a consequence, engages himself in the search for new knowledge. This being so, one realizes at once why scientists prize originality of mind for the person who has a taste for science. For science reveals that nature is so rich and unexpected in its manifestations that a person should never rest self-satisfied on the laurels of past intellectual attainments. Planck expressed well this basic trait of the scientific attitude: "… compared with immeasurable rich, ever young nature, advanced as man may be in scientific knowledge and insight, he must forever remain the wondering child and must constantly be prepared for new surprises" [3].

The Admiration of Discovery

A second acceptation of the term “wonder” is applicable to the scientific experience. The scientist does not experience surprise only at the beginning of his work, when he realizes that the world is knowable and yet not known. He is even more surprised when he attains the goal of his striving—that is, when he effectively discovers the intelligibility of nature he had been pursuing. The surprise is not that of being confronted with something that is greater and more exciting than anticipated. To distinguish from the first kind of wonder, we can speak in this connection of admiration and its accompanying emotions, such as delight and a sense of rewarding and gratification.

To realize directly this characteristic aspect of science, let us consider some of the concrete evidence available. In the first place, contrary to widespread cliché, the emotions of the scientist are totally involved in the experience of discovery. Scientists are far from being the cool, unemotional people — all brain and no heart—who are frequently imagined by laymen. Scientists themselves continually speak of thrill and excitement. And they are ingenious in resorting to comparisons to convey their feelings. The psychologist Eiduson has collected instructive data in this regard. One leading physicist, for instance, compared the scientific quest for knowing to the prospector’s search for gold [4]. The prospector shovels dirt in a gold field. The work is monotonous and wearying. But then, all of a sudden, a gold nugget is there. The thrill of the finding amply compensates the wearisome quest. A similar thrill rewards the scientific researcher. The physicist cited concludes by avowing candidly: "… to me the biggest thrill is seeing a new effect for the first time. It may happen only once or twice a year, but it’s worth all the drudgery that precedes it."

Other scientists make the same point. For instance, a chemist affirmed significantly: "One thing about science is that the search for understanding is far more exciting than I had ever expected it to be when I was young". [5].

The emotional aspect of admiration clearly plays a major role in the scientific enterprise. But if the emotions of the scientist are involved in the scientific process, how should one evaluate the situation? Is the reaction of the scientist but something subjective, a release of psychological tension which has nothing to do with the objective content of science itself? Numerous philosophers seem to think so, but scientists are of quite a different opinion. One chemist, for instance, expressed to Eiduson in the following illuminating way the joy he was experiencing because of science.

Well, to me, science is terribly exciting. I’m not saying that the satisfaction comes from just having solved a problem; the satisfaction really comes — as far as I’m concerned — in the achievement of understanding [6].

This testimony is illuminating because it shows why scientists find science rewarding. What they experience is not a mere psychological reaction—something entirely subjective. Actually, their joy and exultation are aroused by the discovery of truth—something entirely objective. Such an experience is expressed by the scientists in various ways. For instance, the great neurologist Ramón y Cajal compares the joy of scientific discovery to that of bringing forth a new life:

"Such supreme joy and satisfaction makes all other pleasures appear as pale sensations and compensates the scientist for the hard, constant, analytical work, like childbirth labor involved in achieving a new truth" [7].

Born adds another consideration in the same vein by asserting that the pleasure of discovery is not merely subjective, like that enjoyed, for instance, in solving a crossword puzzle. For the subjective feeling is accompanied here by the consciousness of objective creativity, just as it happens in the creativity of art and philosophy.

"This pleasure is a little like that known to anyone who solves crossword puzzles. Yet it is much more than that, perhaps even more than the joy of doing creative work in other professions except art. It consists in the feeling of penetrating the mystery of nature, discovering a secret of creation, and bringing some sense and order into a part of the chaotic world. It is a philosophical satisfaction" [8].

In the light of the preceding, we realize why creative scientists insist much that science is essentially a theoretical vision—as opposed to any practical results that man can expect from science itself. Louis de Broglie summarizes the situation well by declaring that the joy of objective discovery is what motivates genuine scientists in their research.

"The great epoch-making discoveries in the history of science (think, for example, of that of universal gravitation) have been like sudden lightning flashes, making us perceive in one single glance a harmony up till then unsuspected, and it is to have, from time to time, the divine joy of discovering such harmonies that pure science works without sparing its toil or seeking for profit" [9].

The Astonishment at Natural Intelligibility

We have seen that wonder continually attends science in the making. It triggers the interest of the researcher and rewards his effort. However, once a scientific view of reality has successfully established itself, is there any room left for wonder? In other terms, should one think that science and wonder are compatible or, rather, that the scientific attitude entails the exclusion of wonder from the mind of man? This is the further issue we have to examine in order to realize the role played by wonder in relation to science.

To clarify our issue from the start, it is obvious that there is a kind of wonder that is incompatible with science. It is the surprise that results from ignorance. Thus, for instance, children or simpletons are surprised at the tricks of a prestidigitator, while reflective grown-ups are not. But if this is the case, what is the situation as regards science? Should one say that it kills wonder by banishing ignorance from the mind of man or, rather, that the success of science is itself the source of wonder, of a kind unsuspected to nonscientific man? This is our question. To discuss it I shall refer to the statements of two main antagonists, both of whom claim to be speaking in the name of science: Mach and Einstein.

Mach was himself a scientist, a distinguished experimental physicist. But, as will soon be clear, his ideas on this subject were mainly of philosophical origin. Mach’s stand on wonder in relation to science is uncompromising. To him there is no doubt that wonder is just a subjective feeling, a manifestation of personal ignorance. Thus science must be the enemy of wonder. In his own words:

"Novelty excited wonder in persons whose habits of thought are shaken and disarranged by what they see. But the element of wonder never lies in the phenomenon or event observed; its place is in the person observing. People of more vigorous mental type aim at once at an adaptation of thought that will conform to what they have observed. Thus does science eventually become the natural foe of the wonderful" [10].

Why did Mach take this position? The philosophical origin of his conviction becomes clear when we study the arguments he presents to defend his thesis. His mentality is dominated by the empiricist conception of knowledge and the consequent logicomathematical interpretation of science. Not for nothing, in fact, does he tend to reduce science as such to classical mechanics, but he also explains mechanics itself merely in terms of sense impressions. As an example, we can refer to his own lengthy discussion of the mechanical principle of virtual displacements, which he presents as typical of the scientific understanding of nature. He concludes his discussion with a statement that is quite illuminating:

"Collecting all that has been presented, we see that there is contained in the principle of virtual displacements simply the recognition of a fact that was instinctively familiar to us long previously, only that we had not apprehended it so precisely and clearly. This fact consists in the circumstance that heavy bodies, of themselves, move only downwards" [11].

This statement is important because it exemplifies Mach’s general conviction about the nature of science as such. As he puts it elsewhere in his philosophical writings:

"The greatest advances of science have always consisted in some successful formulation, in clear, abstract, and communicable terms, of what was instinctively known long before and of thus making it the permanent possession of humanity" [12].

In brief, science is for Mach simply a reception and organization of sense impressions or, as he put it, “adaptation of thought.” But, as such, science must be incompatible with wonder. For, clearly, there can be no room for surprise left once the mind of man has become adapted to some sense impressions. Rather, under this assumption, the opposite must be true. That is, science must not only destroy wonder, but also leave man with a sense of disillusionment. For adaptation amounts ultimately to showing that things are self-evident, practically trivial. This is indeed Mach’s doctrine. In his own words:

"As a fact, every enlightening progress made in science is accompanied with a certain feeling of disillusionment. We discover that that which appeared wonderful to us is no more wonderful than other things which we know instinctively and regard as self-evident; nay, that the contrary would be much more wonderful; that everywhere the same fact expresses itself. Our puzzle turns out then to be a puzzle no more; it vanishes into nothingness, and takes its place among the shadows of history" [13].

To sum up, Mach’s position is clear and forthright, but is certainly not derived directly from his own experience as a scientist. Rather it is a statement stemming from his philosophical interpretation of the science of mechanics.

When we turn to Einstein’s position, we are in an entirely different climate. Einstein knew Mach’s historical and philosophical work quite well. He even ascribed to it a certain positive influence concerning the origin of his own theory of relativity [14]. And yet, not only did Einstein not share Mach’s view on wonder, but he explicitly maintained the exactly opposite thesis. To Einstein, there can be no doubt that science, far from destroying wonder, actually contributes to it—the more the wonder, the greater the progress of science itself. What was the reason for his conviction? We can safely say that such a reason was his own experience as a scientific creator. Particularly one text, contained in a private letter to a friend, manifests the experiential source of Einstein’s conviction clearly.

"You consider it strange that I sense the comprehensibility of the world (in so far as we are justified to speak of it) as a wonder (Wunder) or an external mystery (ewiges Geheimnis). Now, a priori one should expect a chaotic world which can in no way be grasped by thought. One could (better, should) expect that the world should prove subject to law only in so far as we intervene by putting order ourselves. It would be a type of orderliness like the alphabetic order of the words of a language. On the contrary, the kind of orderliness which results, for instance, from Newton’s theory of gravitation is of an entirely different character. Even though the axioms of the theory are set down by man, the success of such an enterprise presupposes a high level of order in the objective world which we have no a priori right to expect. There lies the 'Wonder' which increases steadily with the development of our knowledge. Here lies the weak point of the positivists and professional atheists who feel happy in the consciousness that they have not only successfully dedivinized (entgöttert) but even dewonderized (entwundert) the world" [15].

The lines of controversy could not be more sharply drawn. Which of the two great antagonists should be seen as the genuine representative of the scientific mind? If we remain consistent with our experiential approach in the study of science and its significance, the answer cannot be doubtful. Einstein is the authentic spokesman of science here. In fact, several reasons support his thesis.

The fundamental reason why successful science increases wonder rather than suppressing it is touched upon in the foregoing quotation. It is the success of science itself. Indeed, the achievement of science is the detection of objective intelligibility in nature. But such detection cannot help being surprising if one reflects on it. In fact, on the one hand, science is an idealized and logical structure due to the effort of man. Its universality and rigor are but a man-made formulation. On the other hand, nature exists in complete independence of man. It is far from ideal and abstractly universal. Rather, it consists of countless individual beings which are subject to continual, unforeseeable change. Thus it would appear that chaos, not orderliness, should be the prevailing feature of nature. This is then the main reason why man should be surprised at the success of science. It is the convergence of man’s science and nature’s behavior. This convergence is a fact, but is also a question, because its explanation is far from self-evident. Consequently, the more science advances, the more the wonder aroused by it increases rather than disappears. Einstein insisted repeatedly that there is motive for astonishment in this connection. As he put it in a writing discussing the work of Planck:

"He [the physicist] is astonished to notice how sublime order emerges from what appeared to be chaos. And this cannot be traced back to the workings of his own mind but is due to a quality that is inherent in the world of perception". [16]

Variations on the reason given can be found in the literature. Planck, for instance, finds a source of surprise in the fact that men doing science are quite different in many ways, while science is just “one.” Moreover, the discoveries of science prove to have a scope that far outstrips the expectations of those who first made them. In his own words:

"Rightly viewed, the real marvel is that we encounter natural laws at all which are the same for men of all races and nations. This is a fact which is by no means a matter of course. And the subsequent marvel is that for the most part these laws have a scope which could not have been anticipated in advance. Thus the element of the wondrous in the structure of the world picture increases with the discovery of every new law" [17].

Still another reason for surprise at the success of science is indicated by Planck. It has to do with the peculiar way science itself changes over the centuries. In principle, no one should be surprised at the changeability of science. For things do change in time, and men change, too. Hence it is only to be expected that man’s knowledge of nature is subject to change. And yet, the changeability of science is surprising in that all the novelties that science discovers do not wipe out the previous scientific worldview, but simply perfect and complement it. This is surprising because it appears to be a unique phenomenon in the history of mankind. To cite Planck again:

"But the circumstance which calls for ever greater wonderment, because it is not self-evidently a matter of course by any means, is that the new world picture does not wipe out the old one, but permits it to stand in its entirety, and merely adds a special condition for it… As the multitude of the natural phenomena observed in all fields unfolds in an ever richer and more variegated profusion, the scientific world picture, which is derived from them, assumes an always clearer and more definite form. The continuing changes in the world picture do not therefore signify an erratic oscillation in a zigzag line, but a progress, an improvement, a completion" [18].

To be sure, the objection against the wonder arising from the achievements of science can be pressed by insisting on the Machian conception of knowledge. If knowledge is pure adaptation of man to his environment as perceived through the senses, the success of science is the most natural thing in the world. For science is merely the product of man’s conditioning as exerted upon him by the environment. Hence, as Louis de Broglie sums up the objection, "… it [humanity] must not be astonished to recover in the material world the logic and the rules of reasoning that it has extracted from it" [19].

However, if this objection can be worth examining by the philosopher, it only meets with scorn on the part of the creative scientist as such. For, if there is anything that is not an adaptation of man to what he instinctively perceives through the senses, it is science. Galileo, for one, was already extolling the dignity of the creative mind. Science at the beginning consisted in the ability to realize as true with the mind what appeared absurd to the senses. But the advances of science into new areas of research have always been of the same kind. This is particularly clear when we consider the attainments of contemporary physics. For the results of relativity concerning the interconnection of space and time, and those of quantum physics concerning the corpuscular and wavelike properties of microparticles, are something that is diametrically opposed to what man naturally perceives through the senses. Thus the wonder of science stands. As de Broglie put it, in the context cited:

We are not sufficiently astonished by the fact that any science may be possible, that is, that our reason should provide us with the means of understanding at least certain aspects of what happens around us in nature.

To close, it is obvious that wonder and science are deeply interconnected. This is so not only in the psychological sense that wonder is the necessary starting point for science. Far more significant is the fact that science, on the strength of his very success, leads the reflective person to a renewed sense of wonder. As we have seen, it is especially the great creator who is affected by the experience of wonder. The reason is clearly the penetrating power of his mind; he cannot help inquiring about the ultimate meaning of the effective intelligibility of nature, which he uncovers through his science. This adds an unexpected new dimension to science as an experience of the whole man. We cannot here pursue the issue in its further fascinating developments. Nevertheless, the outcome of our inquiry is heartening for the humanist who respects science. For he realizes that the world, through science, has not been robbed of its wonder. On the contrary, nature and the world are even more wonderful than before— as a consequence of the success of science.


[1] Translated from W. Heisenberg, Der Teil und das Ganze: Gespräche im Umkreis der Atomphysik (Munich: Piper, 1969), pp. 60f.

[2] Ibid., pp. 37f.

[3] M. Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, trans. F. Gaynor (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949), p. 117.

[4] Quoted by F. Bello in P.C. Obler, and H. Estrin, eds., The New Scientists: Essays on the Methods and Values of Modern Science (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1962), p. 81.

[5] B.T. Eiduson, Scientists: Their Psychological World (New York: Basic Books, 1962), p. 157.

[6] Ibid., p. 110.

[7] S. Ramón y Cajal, in E.H. Craigie and W.C. Gibson, The World of Ramón y Cajal with Selections from His Nonscientific Writings (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1968), p. 191.

[8] M. Born, My Life and Views (New York: Scribner, 1968), pp. 47f.

[9] L. de Broglie, Physics and Microphysics, trans. M. Davidson (New York : Grosset & Dunlap, 1966), p. 208.

[10] E. Mach, “On Transformation and Adaptation of Scientific Thought,” in his Popular Scientific Lectures, trans. T.J. McCormack (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1943), pp. 214-235, especially p. 224.

[11] E. Mach, The Science of Mechanics: A Critical and Historical Account of Its Development, trans. T. J. McCormack (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1960), p. 87.

[12] W. Mach, “The Economical Nature of Physical Inquiry,” in Lectures (note 10), pp. 186-213, especially p. 191.

[13] Mach (note 11), p. 41.

[14] See Einstein’s Autobiographical Notes, in P.A. Schilpp, ed., Albert Einstein, Philosopher-Scientist (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959), p. 21.

[15] Translated from A. Einstein, Lettres à Maurice Solovine (Paris : Gauthier-Villars, 1956), p. 114 ; letter dated March 30, 1952.

[16 A. Einstein, Prologue to M. Planck, Where Is Science Going?, trans. J. Murphy (New York: Norton, 1932), p. 11.

[17] Planck (note) 3, p. 93.

[18] Ibid., p. 98; cf. pp. 98-100.

[19] de Broglie (note 9), p. 209.

E. Cantore, Scientific Man. The Humanistic Significance of Science (New York: ISH Publications, 1977), pp. 95-106.