by Isobel Arthen
On this day when so many people are celebrating science, I wanted to share some reflections I’ve made over the past couple months. When I was young I really thought science was the antithesis of spirituality. I didn’t put any faith in something that I thought tried to explain the unsolvable mysteries of the world around us, and I resented it for defining natural phenomena when, to me, something like fire is so much more than just a chemical reaction. In 9th grade when I started learning about ecological concepts like interdependence, food webs and cycles, I realized that science may not be in contradiction with spirituality. In fact, I discovered that it compliments it in some very potent ways.
Many of you know that I have spent my adult life immersed in the study of science, and specifically ecology. I have found that the more I understand the world around me, the more I can appreciate it. Since starting work as an educator at the Franklin Institute, I have had many opportunities to learn about how to best communicate science to museum guests, including one session about how the brain actually interprets and stores information.
This training left me with a lot to think about, but one thing especially stuck out. At the beginning, we were asked what we had always wondered about the brain. The group answered with a popcorn of questions that piqued my curiosity about every question someone else had asked. We were told, later on, that the question was specifically intended to prime our minds for learning—that inspiring inquiry, or wonder, releases dopamine in the brain, thus improving attention and focus.
After that activity I have been thinking a lot about that word, “wonder.” What a word. It is used to describe a state of inquiry and curiosity, a way of seeking new information— “I wonder why those ants walk in a line?” But it also describes a state of amazement. To stare “with wonder” is to perceive something so astounding that it is almost unbelievable. I have come to believe that “wonder” is that place, that liminal space between science and magic, and as a scientist and an animist, that is where I want to live.
To gaze with wonder at the night sky is so much more if you know that there are about as many neurons in one brain as there are stars in our galaxy, and that there are about the same number of galaxies in the universe. To handle soil means so much more if you know that it took hundreds upon hundreds of years to develop, and that it is home to billions of living beings right in the palm of your hand. What do you miss if you look at fire and just see a combustion reaction? What do you lose if you don’t notice its ability to transform and destroy, or the way gazing into a flame can transport you to a whole other place?
I am disappointed not to be at the science march, but like every day at work, I have spent today bringing science into people’s lives. I have asked guests to wonder with me, to come up with questions, to try and notice and discover new things about the world we so often take for granted. I share this with you so that maybe you’ll make a point to come up with a new question today (if you do, let me know what it is!). It seems to me there is no better way to celebrate science than to take some time to wonder.