Sense of Wonder

March 18,2008

My first reaction was cynical. Why is EPA attempting to get all touchy-feely with this Sense of Wonder competition it announced today? But the more I reflected on it, the more I sensed there might be some value to what it was asking us to do—unfocus.

I’ve recently become sensitized to Rachel Carson-abilia, for want of a better term, owing to two connections. First, I learned last year that I live less than a mile from the house in Maryland where Carson spent her last days and penned her classic work, Silent Spring. Second, my daughter—an environmental chemistry major—attends Carson’s alma mater, a tiny college in Pittsburgh. Against that background, it was hard to ignore EPA’s solicitation of entrants for its Sense of Wonder contest, an event that the agency acknowledges was named after one of Carson’s books.

EPA is inviting people young and old—literally and collaboratively—to explore that sense of marvel and awe “ that you feel when observing the sea, the night sky, forests, birds, wildlife, and all that is beautiful.” Submissions are open only to intergenerational teams. Concrete illustrations of that wonderment can be pursued in the form of poetry, essays, or photography.

What brought me around to endorsing the premise behind the competition is the realization that too often we focus on some subject. And the operant word is focus. With a laser-like vision, we home in on the details. In the process, we lose the proverbial forest for the tree, or the twig, or the gases entering a stoma on one of the leaves. This contest is asking us to sit back and take in the grand vista. Open ourselves to the interconnectedness between elements in nature. And even the fact that these things might prove lovely or suggest the miraculous.

In fact, seeing the big picture sometimes helps us to better appreciate the details. It also can trigger different questions than when we look at elements in isolation. Perhaps we’ll identify signs of a symbiosis. Or listen to bird calls that suddenly make us question what factors have drawn that species to where it is.

The same practice would likely have benefits in other arenas as well. We writers often painstakingly worry over word choice, tweaking phrase after phrase. Less often do we read the entire story and consider whether it has holes, threatens to send readers off on tangents, or flows smoothly paragraph after paragraph. So, too, researchers sometimes fail to ask where their work fits into the big picture—and whether more might be gained from collaborating with people in unrelated fields that affect the same phenomena or environments.

The cross-generational nature of the EPA contest also asks us to look at things through not only our eyes, but those of naïve children. Youngsters ask “why” when we’ve forgotten to. Their broader, uninhibited curiosity can be healthy. Yes, it can also be embarrassing for adults to acknowledge what they don’t know. But maybe instead of always trying to prove how mature we’ve become, we should recapture some of that childish sense of wonder as we go through a part of each day. And see where the questions it unleashes take us.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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