The Taxonomy of Wonder

— Scientific American

Wonder and amazement at the natural world inspire many blog posts, projects, and even careers in science, but it’s rare that you’ll see wonder break through the soul-crushing passive voice of the scientific literature. It wasn’t always this way, of course. In Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750, historians of science Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park discuss the intellectual history of wonders in the exploration of natural phenomena before the Enlightenment:

As theorized by medieval and early modern intellectuals, wonder was a cognitive passion, as much about knowing as about feeling…The passion of wonder had a mixed reception among late medieval and Renaissance natural inquirers, scorned by some as a token of ignorance and praised by others, following Aristotle, as “the beginning of philosophy.” All, however, agreed that wonder was not simply a private emotional experience but rather, depending on context, a prelude to divine contemplation, a shaming admission of ignorance, a cowardly flight into fear of the unknown, or a plunge into energetic investigation…Since the Enlightenment, however, wonder has become a disreputable passion in workaday science, redolent of the popular, the amateurish, and the childish. Scientists now reserve expressions of wonder fo their personal memoirs, not their professional publications. They may acknowledge wonder as a motivation, but they no longer consider it part of doing science.

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