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hope for wonder

November 4, 2009

[NYTimes] What should we expect from a science museum? Do we want to be carefully tutored in a scientific discipline? Do we seek to be entertained in a vaguely enlightening way? Do we hope to be urged to adopt particular policies or practices? My own desire is simpler than any of these, though far less often encountered. I hope for wonder.

Wonder is not puzzlement, bewilderment or confusion. But it is also not satisfaction, completion or understanding. It is more open-ended, even a little unsettling. There is an element of calm, poised detachment in wonder but also a restless amazement. In the wake of wonder, we are literally moved. We cannot remain still. We are spurred to explore.

Wonder may even lie at the origins of science museums, which grew out of “cabinets of wonder” — eccentric Renaissance collections of natural marvels. Though the sensation is now too rarely cultivated, it was much on my mind during a recent visit to the new museum of the California Academy of Sciences, which opened here in Golden Gate Park just over a year ago. I followed that visit with a return to San Francisco’s venerable Exploratorium, a participatory science museum that is celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend with special events. The new museum promises much wonder, but the Exploratorium, even after several visits, keeps inspiring it. And the difference is worth considering. (read)

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