A Sense of Wonder—From Rachel Carson to Carl Sagan

Many years ago Rachel Carson wrote a book entitled A Sense of Wonder. It was one of my favorites, and I remember and have used one quote from the book many times: “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” Carson’s passionate book conveys the feelings that most science teachers have for their craft, and their goal is to instill in their students, “A Sense of Wonder.”

Enter Carl Sagan and his views on wonder. Although Carl Sagan died in 1996, his partner in film production and writing, and his wife, Ann Druyan has published a book (The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God) based on lectures he gave in Glasgow, Scotland in 1985. To me Sagan was one of the most influential science educators of our time. By making his knowledge and personal views of science accessible to the public (through his writings, speeches, TV appearances, and film production), Sagan helped many see the beauty and wonder in the cosmos. You of course remember is famous, “billions and billions.” He encouraged us to look again at the stars, at the cosmos and to imagine other worlds, beings, if you will. He worked with NASA to make sure that the first space vehicle to leave the Solar System would contain messages that could be interpreted by intelligent life so that they might know of us—Earth beings.

Now a new book—published last October. A book that explores areas that we all want to know about. Areas that many have been forced to separate in their experiences—that is science and religion. Sagan, as much as anyone, was well qualified to give lectures on science and religion. He understood religion. He read and could recite scripture. He could argue religion with scholars in the field, and carried on debates on subjects that many scientists resisted.

In the introduction to the book, Druyan comments that for Sagan, Darwin’s insight that life evolved over eons through natural selection was not just better science than Genesis, it afforded us with a “deeper, more spiritual experience.” I thought it was interesting that Druyan also points out that Sagan, who always comments on the vastness and grandeur of the universe, believed we know very little of this universe, and as a result very little about the spiritual, about God. Sagan used analogies to help us understand this vastness. He was famous for this statement: the total number of stars in the universe is greater than all of the grains of sand in all of the Earth’s beaches! This is where billions and billions came from.

So what is this musing about. Science teaching is about wonder. It is about bringing to wide-eyed kids the sense of wonder that Rachel Carson wrote about, and Carl Sagan expressed in all of his work. I’ll return to Druyan’s book, and talk about some of the chapters in it such as Nature and Wonder: A Reconnaissance of Heaven (Ch. 1), Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Ch. 4), Crimes Against Creation (Ch. 8).