Science Communication, Wonder, and Techno-Solidarity

By Caleb Strom

When the opportunity to view the “Great North American Eclipse” came this past April, I organized a trip with several student organizations at my university to travel into the path of totality. All the people at the event, regardless of their profession, political views, or religious background, were united in wonder as we watched the moon pass in front of the sun.Millions of others in this country shared in this experience. I feel safe in saying that witnessing an event such as a total solar eclipse, makes us as humans feel connected to the cosmos, to each other, and ultimately to God even though we may not realize it.

Since ancient times, human cultures have imbued eclipses with spiritual or religious significance. Eclipses were interpreted as omens from the gods forewarning change or judgment by the ancient Mesopotamians, the ancient Chinese, in classical Hinduism, and in Navajo traditions. Ancient Egyptians saw eclipses as  demonstrations of the power of the sun god Ra over the cosmos. The Abrahamic faiths– Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–also have interpreted eclipses as signs of divine power over nature. Buddhist tradition connects eclipses with times of meditation and mindfulness. For many indigenous cultures, such as the Maasai of east Africa, an eclipse is a reminder of the interconnectedness of living beings with the cosmos. 

A scientific explanation of eclipses does not take away from their spiritual power. For example, several Catholic retreats were held in the path of totality to allow participants to ponder the spiritual significance of the eclipse for their lives. One of the retreats was led by Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno, where the topic of the retreat was faith and science.

 In another case, a group of students at Catholic University of America collaborated with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to study the sun’s magnetosphere during the solar eclipse. Rather than inhibiting each other, faith and science can together foster wonder about the universe, a wonder that can unite people in a sense of solidarity with each other and the cosmos. Wonder is important for its own sake, because it is part of what makes us human, but it also matters because wonder of the other is the basis for the solidarity required for any social progress.

Art, religion, philosophy, and science all remind us that there is a universe of wonder outside of the world of everyday work or earning a paycheck. What makes science uniquely relevant for inspiring wonder in our technological society is that science is intimately connected to technology in a way that art, religion, or philosophy  are not. As we try to probe deeper into the mysteries of the cosmos, we need better instruments to explore planetary surfaces and atmospheres, distant galaxies at the dawn of the universe, the complexities of the human genome, and the mysteries of the deep past. Advances in machine learning, remote sensing, and artificial intelligence have contributed significantly to science, and scientific exploration has in turn inspired technological advances that benefit society. The techno-optimism that comes from science is not one of power but of wonder.  

In a speech from 2007, former NASA administrator Michael Griffin proposed that the practical arguments made for space exploration, such as economic competitiveness, geopolitics, and technological spinoffs, are justifications for the "real reasons'' for space exploration, one of which is curiosity, or wonder, about the universe. This real reason is also why we support museums of archaeology and paleontology–curiosity about ancient civilizations or ancient organisms. What would technological innovation look like if it was primarily motivated by a desire to understand the universe out of sheer wonder?

Currently, the motivation for most technological innovation is maximizing profit for tech investors. In the book, Leisure the Basis of Culture, Joseph Pieper points out that if practical concerns, such as maximizing profit, are the primary motivation for technological innovation, activities that do not generate profit but are essential to being human, including wonder, celebration, and worship, will be neglected in favor of practical pursuits that generate profit for investors. God’s creation, which we are meant to steward and be in relationship with, comes to be seen as a stockpile of resources for human production and consumption.This inevitably leads to using technology in ways that can be environmentally destructive and economically exploitative.. If we desire technology to be used to renew creation and love our neighbor, how do we rescue technology from extractivism? Part of the answer might be science communication.

Shifting the current techno-optimism of power to a techno-optimism of wonder requires promoting scientific exploration as a primary motivation for technological development. Museums, bloggers, and podcasters are already very involved in this, but there is a need to specifically communicate how technology can advance the goals of scientific research important to the public. Currently, most people seem to associate technological innovation with the latest gadgets that will make a profit for tech investors instead of pure scientific exploration.

One way to shift this association is to have more podcasts and articles about how machine learning algorithms, artificial intelligence, remote sensing,and so on  are enhancing our ability to map the surface of other planets and interpret archaeological sites and reconstruct long dead organisms. It will also be necessary to interest technologists themselves in science communication. A simple example would be the Eclipse Company which created a free app for people planning their trips to see the 2024 North American eclipse.

Beyond the role of science communicators, local faith groups, and even local advocacy groups, such as DSA chapters, could help by hosting science-related events, such as telescope parties or field trips to explore the flora and fauna of local ecosystems in their community. They could also rally to support local museums and observatories that  need funding and publicity to continue functioning. Community efforts like this can foster support for technological innovation to pursue pure science. To move beyond the profit-motive in the tech sector, we need an alternative vision of what technology can do for us. Techno-Capital, based on using technology to extract value from nature to accumulate profit, needs to give way to Techno-Solidarity, where technology is used to promote human and cosmic solidarity.

In his book The Life We Are Looking For, Andy Crouch makes a point that truly advanced technology should actually strengthen our relationships with other humans; creation; and ultimately, with God, rather than weaken or distort them. Technology that allows us to better understand the cosmos, our place in it, and our connection to the other creatures that inhabit it would be truly advanced technology. This truly advanced technology, however, will require a new vision of what technology is supposed to do for us. Technological innovation driven by a desire to explore and understand the universe may help us get there.  


Caleb Strom is a PhD student in planetary science who currently studies icy moons and dwarf planets in the outer solar system. He also writes about science, faith, technology and how their integration can help create a better world.

Image credit: Ron Jenkins / Getty Images