Awe and Wonder in Science | The BioLogos Forum

Note: The BioLogos blog is on hiatus from regular content as we prepare for the launch of a major revision to our website. In the meantime, we are running excerpts from some of our favorite books on science and faith. This week, we are featuring excerpts from God in the Lab by Ruth M. Bancewicz.

Wonderful cells

My scientist of faith for this chapter is Rhoda Hawkins, a theoretical physicist and lecturer at the University of Sheffield. Rhoda uses physics to tackle biological problems, and the main focus of her research at the moment is the properties of cells and how they move. She and her students use mathematical or computer models to make predictions, and they collaborate with lab-based researchers (mainly biologists and other physicists) who test those predictions. The long-term aim of their work is to understand more about the immune system and the movement of cells in cancer.

It was fascinating to hear Rhoda using the language of physics to explain something biological. I was reminded that even the simplest-looking organism is incredibly complex on the inside. Her description of a cell was, “It’s not a solid and it’s not a liquid; it’s somewhere in between the two. ‘Squidgy’ is a good word to describe it.

“We use theories that have been developed for squidgy materials, and then we think about the fact that this is a material that’s alive, and how that makes it different. In physics language it’s called ‘out of equilibrium’, which means there’s an internal source of energy from the food that the cell or the organism is eating. It uses that energy to exert forces and move in a way that a non-living material wouldn’t. You wouldn’t expect a blob of hair gel to start crawling across your shower floor unless you pushed it – whereas a cell, which has a similar consistency, is able to move on its own.”

When I asked Rhoda what motivated her to work on such difficult problems, she returned to the properties of the cell. “I find cell movement incredible. You’ve got a blob of squidgy material and it’s crawling across a surface or it’s squeezing through a gap. If it’s a white blood cell it might be doing something more complicated like chasing a bacterium. I look at that and I just ask, ‘Why? How is it capable of doing that when it’s a relatively simple thing?’”

For Rhoda, wonder is “that thing that makes you say, ‘Wow’. There’s an amazement about it that goes beyond what you’ve done yourself. So it’s, ‘Wow, this works! We’ve started with these equations and we’ve got an answer that makes sense and fits with the experimental data.’ It’s an acknowledgment of beauty in the system and amazement at the world around us.”

Of course, every researcher does not bounce out of bed every day anticipating the wonders they will see. Rhoda finds that her sense of wonder is renewed when she interacts with her colleagues. “If I haven’t been to a conference for several months I can find myself getting a little bit dry. I’ll be looking forward to the next opportunity to listen to somebody talking about their work, because that fires me up again. It gets you out of the details that you’re bogged down in and provides you with a bigger picture. I’m amazed by what they’ve done, and I find that inspirational for my own work, even if it’s not directly relevant.”

So, like beauty, wonder is another force that drives scientific research. “I see a mountain and I want to climb up it,” said Rhoda. “It could be really tough to get up there, and you could be tired – but then when you get to the top you’ve got this amazing view, and a sense of satisfaction and achievement. So even the struggle is contributing to that sense of wonder. If climbing the mountain was too easy, then you wouldn’t feel so happy when you got to the top.”

Awe and wonder

I have found that many people use the words “awe” and “wonder” interchangeably, but they don’t mean exactly the same thing. Wonder is a stepping stone on the way to awe, so I’ll need to define awe first.

Awe is the mixture of overwhelmment, wonder, and fear that we feel when we come across things that are larger, more beautiful, more powerful or complex than anything we see in our everyday lives. To be awestruck is one of the most basic human experiences. The night sky, vast landscapes or the mighty forces of wind and sea are accessible to almost every person on earth, and can affect us deeply. Architecture, paintings, and music often move us in a similar way. Awe invokes feelings of reverence or respect. There is also the need for mental adjustment or accommodation: before we can take it in we need to make room in our mental map of the world for this new and amazing thing.

Wonder on its own – what you might call childlike wonder – is what we experience when we’re confronted by anything new or unexpected. Wonder is an active and hopeful feeling, because we have the opportunity to learn when we come up against the unfamiliar. We are amazed and surprised, and it makes us curious. We want to examine and understand it. We might begin to doubt what we thought we knew about it, and enjoy the process of asking questions and beginning to untangle its mysteries. There may also be an element of mental adjustment as we try to make sense of it. Overall, to wonder is a pleasant experience because the object of our attention is fascinating but not threatening.

What I have given so far is the standard dictionary definition of wonder, but like beauty, there have been different uses of the word throughout Western history. We have arrived at a point where wonder is seen to be a positive emotion or activity, but it could easily have been otherwise. For the ancient Greek philosophers, wonder was the root of learning because coming up against the unknown makes us look for answers. The early scientists (in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) continued in this tradition, and the great philosophers of science, Francis Bacon and René Descartes saw wonder as an opportunity to increase knowledge.

As the seventeenth century drew to a close and the Age of Enlightenment was born, wonder began to be seen in a negative light, and was associated with ignorance and superstition. The Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith described wonder as a disturbing emotion that must be dispelled with knowledge. When we come across something new, he wrote, it throws us outside of our usual categories of thinking and we must investigate it until we find a connection with something more familiar. Once we have found a mental pigeonhole for the offending item, peace is restored.

Smith thought the urge to eliminate wonder was a driving force in the development of modern science. But when Romanticism began to emerge towards the end of the eighteenth century, imagination and emotion came to the fore, and wonder and awe were back in vogue. Wonder is a way to “reclaim a lost childhood”, and has been taken seriously by a number of philosophers.

Today, in a sense, we have returned to our roots. Children are encouraged to be wonderers and adults try to keep their sense of wonder alive. A writer wonders about the meaning of a word, and a chef wonders about the flavour of a new ingredient. A gardener wonders why roses grow so well in certain types of soil, and a scientist wonders how physical forces can work together to produce something so strange and beautiful. Once again, wonder is the root of knowledge.


Excerpt from GOD IN THE LAB: HOW SCIENCE ENHANCES FAITH by Ruth M. Bancewicz. Reprinted by arrangement with Monarch Books, an imprint of Lion Hudson PLC (UK). Copyright © 2015 by Ruth M. Bancewicz

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