Does Awe Have a Future? Emotion and Aesthetics in the Sciences and Humanities

Astronomy and Astrophysics (Physics); History of Religion; Education

We propose to examine awe and its effects as a component of science and human flourishing in the intersecting contexts of are astrophysics, the history of religion, and place-based learning.

Research Interests
  • Cosmology
  • Religion and culture
  • Pedagogical research
  • aesthetics
  • emotion

We propose to examine awe—both the human need for awe and its potential effects—for changing practice and as core components of science, place-based interdisciplinary collaboration, and human flourishing. Awe is a powerful yet understudied response to scientific knowledge, as well as fuel for the quest for scientific understanding. An emotional response to vastness, an intellectual response to connection and magnitude, and a practical response to experiences of transcendence, awe occurs in response to both macro- and micro- phenomena: Cosmos and cell are both sites of awe. Scientific breakthroughs not only produce insight, but inspire awe, reorienting our sense of place in the world, cultivating wonder, and promoting resilience.

We wager that for scientific exploration to capture the human imagination and to gain purchase on and transform our practices as researchers and as citizens, a sense of awe is essential. We aim to examine how awe is integral to at least three activities in science: curiosity, creativity, and connection. Curiosity forms areas and avenues of research. Creativity helps to ensure that research is successful. Social connections form the context for research, communication of findings, and public engagement with research. Awe is key to all three, and thus key to science as a basic human practice. Awe translates into our higher common aspirations, our rights and responsibilities as producers and consumers of scientific knowledge. And awe holds unique possibilities for our quest for human flourishing.

We are an interdisciplinary team that has demonstrative experience in travelling to sites for collaboration between scientists, artists, and humanists (including UVA’s Coastal Research Center, Yellowstone National Park, and Bhutan) and with significant experience in successful grant-writing for these efforts. We now seek to bring this project to a new level, to engage students in order to both deepen our collaboration and insight, and, as well, more specifically, to develop a pedagogy of awe that is useful for scientists and humanities alike. The core faculty will lead a cohort of undergraduate and graduate students in three related but possibly sequential 1-credit seminars to be held over three separate weekends during the granting period; students may take one or all three courses. The seminars will be cross-listed in relevant departments. We envision an enrollment of 12 students for each trip, drawing from across the college and related schools. Each course will involve advanced reading and preparation, a weekend-long field trip, and a debrief discussion with student presentations. Entry and exit interviews designed, possibly in conjunction with the UVA Office of Institutional Assessment, to elicit feedback on pedagogical methods, will also be conducted.

These seminars are focused on place-based intensive discussion, outside of the classroom, in a real-world place. It brings the creative and collaborative power of humanities-based discussion and thinking to real places of environmental, cultural, or social significance. The energy of being in a significant place combines with the thoughtfulness of discussion-based learning to create intensified appreciation of that place and a greater sense of how classic humanities themes can be made relevant to the actual places we live. Site-specific observation exercises and experiments bring reflection on classic works and contemporary scholarship to bear on problem solving in places where people work. In this way the seminars engage students, faculty, and researchers to think on their feet in places that most need creative thinking: natural environments and dark sky locations. Travelling to and experiencing first-hand such significant places brings abstract thought about global problems down to earth. Working and thinking together on-site charges seminar discussants to put their emerging collective knowledge to solve problems specifically related to that place.

We plan three trips to regional research and observation sites, which likely include the following:


Desired outcomes

  • Develop and run 3 one-credit on-site collaborative seminars for undergraduates and graduates. Working side by side with students and faculty, we seek to explore the phenomenon, experience, and effects of awe in relationship to pedagogy in both the sciences and the humanities.

  • Co-author a white paper on “a pedagogy of awe.” Collaboration between the sciences, arts, and humanities holds great potential and is essential for developing pedagogies of awe. This will require new models and transdisciplinary methods for scholarship—for example, site-based collaborations, discussion-based analysis—that have the capacity to enhance questions that require specialized scientific expertise.

  • Develop and submit a large-scale proposal for the study of awe at the intersection of the sciences and the humanities to the Templeton Foundation

  • Develop and submit a proposal for an NEH documentary film-making grant on science, awe, and the American experience.