Manufacturing wonder

There are, in the end, only two types of scientific results worth reporting: those that have self-evident value/importance/beauty/wonder, and those that do not.

The vast, vast majority of scientific research worth covering is not self-evident.

So it falls on the writer to grab the reader and interpret graphs and jargon which the study’s significance hides within. Often that means an enumeration of the tantalizing possibilities—a new theory of nature, an application for combatting climate change, a seismic shift in how we understand ourselves in the universe, etc. In an oversaturated attention economy, it is nearly impossible to win by simply reporting the result.

Another way of putting this is that the task is to manufacture wonder.

Sometimes this is relatively easy; the scientists themselves are excited, the result is a good one and merely needs to be explained lucidly. Other times it’s a stretch. The reader has to be cajoled and enticed with juicy details of the “gee whiz” variety. For the talented manufacturer, almost no result is too mundane or too insignificant. A result about, say, a spike in a graph of iron levels for seafloor sediment can be transformed into a tapestry of the Triassic Age that depicts dinosaurs who (somehow) benefitted from increased levels of oxidation. New theories about dark photons (speculative) coupling to a composite Higgs boson (also speculative) which together would solve 5% of the missing mass of the universe can receive front page billing if the writer is a clever enough wordsmith.

None of this is to say that these stories are wrong or false. Many have the required caveats, (“the new theory hasn’t been proven”) but they are written in the key of excitement (“…but if they were, they would be foundation rattling”).

Manufacturing wonder is also necessary from a financial standpoint. Readers want “cool” things, publications want readers, writers want to get paid. It is difficult to get paid when you advertise that what you are writing is not wondrous, but just news. Any old news, like a town hall, like the weather, like a crime blotter.


Astronomy is in the privileged position of having much more direct, visual access to wonder than nearly any other physical science. The new photos from JWST are staggering. They are, in the archaic sense of the word, awful. Gaze upon the cliffs of the Carina Nebula. Stare upon the galactic dervish in Stephan’s Quintet. Witness the light from galaxies born before the Earth.

Words may help, but the wonder is pre-packaged, delivered from the photons to the telescope to the processing software to a press conference to your computer to your eyeballs to your brain.

Anyhow, thank goodness it’s not all this straightforward, or else I’d be out of a job.

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