Moments of Awe and Wonder in Science

Continuing the discussion from Final Endorser List For The Genealogical Adam and Eve:

The beauty and mystery of science brings us all to awe and wonder.


Some of my Christian brethren would question the use of the word transcendence here but I do not. I love the way @NLENTS has described his experience. Whether one refers to a recognition of transcendence or simply an uplifting and euphoric sense of wonder, there is something quite grand at work here.

I’m glad that Dr. Lents included a graphic image of a portion of the Neanderthal DNA sequence. Obviously, it is difficult for a casual observer to observe anything beyond the ACTG nucleotide symbols. Nevertheless, simply recognizing that these genome patterns were found in virtually every nucleus of every cell of one walking, talking, thinking individual of so very long ago somehow makes these mundane sequences gripping and profound.

I found myself staring at that image. So many thoughts and emotions came to mind. I never thought I would see such advances in my own lifetime. I remember Science Digest magazine articles of the 1960’s which talked about a future when every individual’s DNA might be mapped and even edited. That seemed so fantastic back then. Those were the days when paternity tests were so primitive because they were mostly restricted to testing for blood types and a few antigens. Genomic “fingerprints” were far in the future.

I still recall a profusely illustrated article about using cloning to produce variants of an individual. Whimsical and colorful cartoon images of psychedelic pop-artist Peter Max showed him with extra arms, extra height, and even two heads.

Scientists can certainly experience moments of awe and wonder as they pursue their work. Non-scientists can experience similar awe and wonder as they listen to scientists.

Something about what it means to be human allows us to look at something so “plain” and yet be lifted by it into the transcendent. Perhaps artists articulate this kind of experience more than anyone else.


Exactly this. I think we all recognize that feeling that occasionally washes over us as we recognize that we are encountering something larger and more profound than our own ego. I borrow religious language in calling it transcendent. Sharing those moments with each other, and what inspired them, can really bring us together. Quibbling about what is underneath those feelings probably won’t because naturalists and supernaturalists will ultimately answer that question differently. And that’s perfectly okay with me. :slight_smile:


My biggest awe moment was when I looked through a telescope at Saturn for the first time and saw its rings. Got teary eyed.


If you weren’t an atheist, you might call it the threshold of worship. :slight_smile:

1 Like

Same! I have had the incredible pleasure of pointing out Saturn’s rings to people for the first time. Most people have no idea that you can see them with just a simple two-lens light telescope. When people see them for the first time, I feel a sense of connectedness to the scientist of the 14th and 15th century who first went, “Holy CRAP!!”


My moments of awe and wonder might be a little different from most. I’m not a primary investigator on anything, but I’m in a position to see an enormous numbers of goings-on. I may not be the baker, but I have my finger in a lot of pies.

I see a lot of clinical research which may have a positive impact on patient care. Every now and then I have a knock-it-out-of-the-park analysis which really nails down a question, and maybe sets a high standard. Sometimes I see minors questions which turn out to be quite important. I have the privilege of working with some very smart people. And though I’m not directly involved, our department is affiliated with the group that has changed some forms of leukemia from a death sentence into a manageable disease. It feels good to be contributing towards making a positive difference.

I also see data that makes me want to cry. The effects of urban violence on children, child abuse, children with HIV. Working with such data is sobering, to say the least, but it’s every bit as important as those happier moments of discovery.

I was originally planning to link a bunch of publications, but that was too much work. You can browse for yourselves, if you like.


I’m duly impressed. :slightly_smiling_face:

1 Like

That is such a great example of the kind of awe and wonder moment we get to experience after knowing about a particular science phenomenon for years and then finally observing it firsthand.

Your post brought to mind an early experience with microscopy. The rural elementary school I attended for sixth grade used funds raised from its annual “Fall Festival” bake sale and ticket raffles to buy a microscope projector from Edmund Scientific Supply Co. You had to use it in a darkened room because you didn’t look through an eyepiece. The microscope’s image was projected onto a conventional film screen, which in our case was a pull-down mounted on our classroom’s blackboard. So if you wanted extreme magnification beyond that offered by the turret of three lenses, you could simply push the microscope projector’s cart further away from the screen. Yes, the projected image would become dimmer as the distance got greater, but if the room was dark enough you could still see much more detail in the magnified image. (Yes, we sometimes longed for a brighter projection bulb, though in those days that could also risk melting the plastic parts of the microscope and boiling/baking whatever was on the microscope slide.)

Several of us were so excited to have access to such an amazing scientific tool that we took advantage of our recess time to collect seemingly “mundane” things to view at high magnification. I best remember:

(1) Starting with a cotton ball from an adjacent shelf. I put a few of the bright white strands on the microscope slide and my friend turned off the classroom overhead lights. We were delighted by a beautiful image of not so much white as tangled and braided reds, blues, yellows, and greens. We immediately realized that this was similar to observing how a prism breaks up “white” sunlight into bands of colors. Did Isaac Newton ever get to see this?

(2) Granulated sugar and table salt. We saw a far more complex world than we would have predicted! Those “cubes” of salt looked almost like overly-worn wooden blocks that a baby would play with on the floor. They were certainly cubic and yet pitted and imperfect.)

(3) Splinters of wood. Damaged-looking yet beautiful.

(4) It had rained that morning so I went outside to grab a sample from the nearest mud puddle. Even though I had grabbed non-muddy water from the surface of that little “pool”, the microscope revealed a fascinating world that was teaming with life. I had seen drawings of paramecia in textbooks and even black-and-white photos in every classroom’s set of The World Book Encyclopedia. (Color photos were expensive back then and therefore rare in most books. B/W was the standard.) My WOW! moment was seeing paramecia actually alive and moving about erratically, exploring their new “world” that existed between the microscope slide and the cover slip. They swam about like bumper cars, changing direction unpredictably. To get more detail, we propped some scrap flattened cardboard boxes over the windows to block the light which the pull-down blinds couldn’t stop. That allowed us to see the back-and-forth movements of the cilia propelling the tiny creatures through their temporary habitat. We eventually felt sad for them as we realized that the microscope light bulb was heating their water. I remember one of my friends rinsing off the slide and cover slip under an outdoor spigot while laughing, “Back to the wild you go!”

(5) After using the same slide and cover slip a few times, we noticed a little “blob” on the screen. My friend described it as a “jelly slug.” This slow-moving mass was a bag of protoplasm with a few transient pseudopodia (false-feet in Latin) which could be seen to gradually appear and disappear if one watched long enough. This was my first up-close-and-personal look at a living amoeba. It was far more interesting than what I had previously seen in textbooks!

@Dan_Eastwood, as always, I have blabbered on with stories from long ago. Everything I saw by means of that microscope was commonplace in that rural community and yet it was awesome and wonderful when observed in such detail. No scientific discoveries resulted—but was it any less “transcendent” than what @NLENTS sees in sequences of Neanderthal DNA? I think not. My world got bigger.

And my world still gets bigger every time I learn something new from the work of scientists.

@david.heddle joined the forum recently. He’s an insightful writer on his blog which I’ve enjoyed reading. If he has the time, I hope he will share some favorite awe and wonder moments from his physics research.


Perhaps different but no less impressive and noteworthy. (I agree with @DaleCutler.) I’ve gotten to know you a bit on PS but this gives me a much better appreciation for what you do in your job. Perhaps you could tell us more someday on a thread about one of those projects you described.


OK, but not today - pre-vacation crunch! :exploding_head:

My own research is kind of boring, given it is more in a supporting role (I write visualization software for the nuclear physics experiments, “swimming” software that integrates charged particles through magnetic fields, pattern recognition software for recognizing what is just uninteresting electronic noise in the signals, etc., as opposed to basic physics.) However my very close colleagues at the lab recently published, in Nature, a calculation that the pressure inside a proton is about 10x that inside a neutron star. I find that awe inspiring, that we (and everything else) are wonderfully made of such tiny yet exceedingly complex particles that withstand that kind of internal pressure and yet are, it appears, infinitely or semi-infinitely stable.


I can find awe and wonder in the vast expanse of the universe in space and time. But I can also fine it in trivial details of biology. For example, I find whistling ducks, genus Dendrocygna, fascinating. They’re pantropical in distribution, are as genetically diverged as the rest of the family Anatidae and span all the feeding modes of the family, but they all look pretty much alike. One species is distributed across two oceans but has no described subspecific variation. Many puzzles in this little group.