TV and the Sense of Wonder

In the closing pages of The Philosophical Breakfast Club, I noted that the divide between science and the rest of culture–which in some ways was inadvertantly brought about by the innovations of the Philosophical Breakfast Club–had one effect that the members of the club would have especially mourned: that scientists themselves are no longer transmitting to the general public the excitement they feel about science, and the wonder they experience in studying nature. Babbage, Herschel, and Whewell had each written books about natural science and the scientific method, books which were aimed not just at other specialists but at a wider literate public. And these books had a major impact on the public.

Charles Darwin, for instance, was a student when he read Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy. He later told Herschel that “scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me” as the book. “It made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge.” Darwin even admitted to his friend Thomas Henry Huxley that “I sometimes think that general and popular Treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work.” Beyond inspiring some, like Darwin, to become scientists, these books informed the public about the latest discoveries, in language they could understand, and shared the excitement and wonder of scientific exploration.

Yet, in general, today’s scientists are not writing books like this (of course there are some exceptions). Interestingly, it seems that television is stepping in to take on that role. A piece in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine discusses one new series, “Through the Wormhole,” on the Science Channel. What’s terrific about this series is that it is taking on the most abstract parts of today’s science–dark matter, alternative dimensions, etc.–and making them not only understandable but relatable to the public.

And one aspect of the article which is particularly good is how the author, Alex Pappademas, suggests that these theories are at the boundary of science and philosophy. By presenting scientists as “edge-pushing explorer types,” the series gives us “a metaphor for adventurism that is essentially philosphical.” At heart, Pappademas concludes, “Through the Wormhole” is “a commercial for wonder”–a way to help people feel the wonder in the natural world around us that scientists feel.

Another new series, “Curiosity,” on the Discover Channel, also seeks to awaken that sense of wonder. John Henricks, the Founder and Chairman of Discovery Communications and the Curiosity Series Creator, describes the mission of the show this way:

“We all wonder. Curiosity is the driving force in every discovery that has advanced our civilization. From the most obscure details to the biggest questions of our lives, the innate desire to ask why makes us uniquely human. Each week, the CURIOSITY series will capture that fundamental sense of wonder and present an engaging visualization of our minds’ search for answers.”

Even Fox Television is entering the scientific wonder arena; in 2013 it will be broadcasting an updated version of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” with the author and astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson.

The fact that all these science programs are being developed is, I think, a sign that people are hungering for greater understanding of science–and for a sense of wonder in nature. The more that scientists can provide this to the public, the better.

2 replies
    • Laura J. Snyder
      Laura J. Snyder says:

      The UK has always had a more robust tradition of public intellectuals, and I think the “celebrity scientist” is part of it. The more of that the better, I say. Definitely more needs to be done to attract students to science, and these types of shows need to be pitched to younger folk in order to help with that. Of course, there’s also so much wrong with science education in this country, and probably in the UK as well, and that’s a big problem in itself.

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