• Jennie Dear

Hubble and a sense of wonder


Note the sense of awe in this news lead about the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope:

It’s up there right now—flying about 340 miles over the Earth and circling us every 97 minutes. It’s a telescope—in the sky. Just think about that for a bit.

During several days of news reports about the recent Hubble anniversary, I checked out other news reports and found a similar sense of wonder. For instance, here’s reporter Harry Smith on NBC News:

We marvel when we look at pictures that come from the Hubble telescope, photographs of the universe from places hundreds and thousands of light years away. We’ve seen where stars are born.

And Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour:

It's a 25-year-old space telescope that's provided an unmatched window to the universe, one that's helped us understand origins of stars, nebulas and distant baby galaxies.

As I followed the Hubble telescope coverage, I felt proud. I felt humbled, happy and enthusiastic. And the news led me to search out more pictures, more scientific explanations and more historical information about the telescope.

Philosophy professor Jesse Prinz defines wonder as an emotion that “engages our senses, elicits curiosity and instills reverence,” and he believes that “wonder might be humanity’s most important emotion.” He points readers to Socrates, who said philosophy arises from wonder, and to Adam Smith and Rene Descartes, who both said science is rooted in wonder. And, Prinz says, “wonder is the accidental impetus behind our greatest achievements.”

We don’t see enough of that sense of wonder in news stories. When Hubble was in the news in 2009 after NASA sent up new batteries and instruments, Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger contrasted news coverage of the Hubble with political coverage:

The news inundates us now with daily battle reports from the low-grade war that is America’s politics. One cost is a national preoccupation with failure. …. It becomes easy to forget that most people go to work each day to succeed, not fail. Still, it was startling last week to catch sight on TV of men floating in space. This was Servicing Mission 4, NASA’s long-scheduled flight to fix the space-based Hubble telescope.

It was pure success. … The Hubble telescope has become the Washington Monument of U.S. science—beautiful, beloved and important.

What if news stories dealt more often with the wonder of our political system, one that despite its dysfunctional issues and flaws, delivers safety and democratic representation and free speech to large numbers of people for long stretches of time? Or the wonder of an educational system that tries to provide free education to everyone for 12 years? Or the wonders of Medicare and Social Security?

Of course, even wonder and awe can be overdone, as Susan Watts points out in an essay about science journalism in Nature:

More uncritical wide-eyed stories about the “wonder” of science at the expense of science journalism is a decadence we can’t afford, intellectually or practically. I am as awestruck as anyone by the beauty of the aurora borealis, but I also want to know more about issues such as what is being called the replication crisis in science. When important cancer papers, for example, can’t be reproduced by other scientists, something is wrong.

Awe and wonder should never be expressed at the expense of a solid critical approach, Watts says:

…The risk is that in our intoxication with the “wonder” of science, we miss its murkiness. Or worse, we deliberately avoid asking the questions that challenge scientists and technologists about the work they do. Lose that critical perspective, and we lose the ability to take an informed view of what it is we want from science.

And too much focus on “the wow factor” can lead to apathy, as Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach warns. Achenbach describes a moment after NASA’s Early Release Observations (ERO) pictures appeared in 2009:

After much hoo-ha and throat-clearing, the moment came. The ERO! The journalists pounded out their stories, which all said pretty much the same thing: “Wow.”

You see the danger here: Wow can turn into Whatever. The whole enterprise can start to feel a little superficial. It’s too easy to get blissed out on the eye candy. We can become a little too star-struck.

Achenbach’s solution is one that might be applied to all journalism, a reminder to continue to investigate deeply as we communicate our sense of awe.

We’ll go back and look once again at these new pictures, but this time we’ll probe deeper, think harder and search for any messages in the light that careens into Hubble’s mirror. We’ll do a deep reading of the cosmic text. And we’ll ask the hard question: What is space telling us?

Achenbach reminds readers to investigate beyond the images, but he encourages us to retain our sense of wonder:

So, keep looking at those pretty Hubble pictures. Or, better yet, go outside on a clear night. Get away from the city. Look up and stare into the firmament.

And then say: “Wow.”

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