Curiosity and Wonder

I was up during the wee hours of Monday morning to watch NASA’s live feed of mission control as Curiosity made its way to the surface of Mars. I’d been turned on to the whole affair by the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video that made the rounds in the weeks leading up to the landing. The video described all that had to go just right for Curiosity to land safely. If it worked, it would be a marvel. And, as we all know, it did and it was.

Watching the whole affair unfold, I was struck by the drama of it all — the suspense, the elation, the tears, the euphoria. It was fascinating on multiple levels: On its own terms as a triumph of engineering and ingenuity, as a media event generating memes as it unfolded (notably the Mohawk guy), as a rekindler of awe and wonder, and as a skirmish in the war of science and religion some are determined to wage.

I found the last of these particularly interesting, and perhaps a bit misguided. Take, for example, this tweet which appears to have brought its author a burst of Twitter-fame:

Just after the landing, I added my own tweet to the explosion of commentary: “Interplanetary Technological Sublime.” Needless, to say it was not retweeted 16,000+ times. I was alluding to what historian of technology David Nye has termed the American technological sublime. It is the sense of quasi-religious (and quite often not so quasi-) awe that has attended the life of technology in the United States.

One might also have drawn a connection to the religion of technology as it was chronicled by the late David Noble. Whatever we might conclude philosophically about their relationship, historically technology and religion have been entangled with one another. And the entanglement has quite often been anything but adversarial.

In a recent post at The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen noted this entanglement in the arena of space exploration. Noble, in his chapter on the technology of religion as exemplified by the American space program, provides a multitude of further instances in addition to those related by Rosen. The chapter would surprise, and perhaps scandalize readers who were not already aware of the history. One example: When NASA recently confirmed that five of the six flags left by American astronauts on the moon still stood, they might also have checked to see if the Bible left sitting on the Apollo 15 lunar rover was still intact. See photo below:

At the conclusion of her post, Rosen wrote, “There is perhaps nothing more human than the curiosity that compels exploration. But paired with that curiosity is a search for meaning — we don’t want to know just what is out there, we want to turn it into something with a story, something with sense.”

Curiosity — it gets us back to where we started. Curiosity, the quest to understand, the search for life, wonder at the mind’s apprehension of the universe — whatever else we conclude about these things, it would be mistaken to draw too sharp a distinction between the techno-scientific and the religious impulses. Historically, at least, the line has not been as sharp as we may suppose.

Wonder and awe lie near the heart of both pursuits — or else, why would we cry.

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