Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 84

Focal Point

William Sheehan

The Importance of Awe
Can kids today still experience the "11th emotion," the key to loving astronomy?
While struggling in abject poverty
in Nashville after the Civil War, future
astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard
received a Bible from his Sunday school
teacher. He kept it his entire life, but apart
from inscribing his name, he underlined
but one passage (Job 38:31-32):
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of
Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?
Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his
season, or . . . guide Arcturus and his sons?
When Barnard was a boy, it was still
possible to see the Milky Way from downtown Nashville, and the sight of it filled
him with awe. Today, in the U.S., less
than 10 percent of children live in areas
where views of the night sky are similar
to those Barnard enjoyed. Would Barnard
have felt the same sense of awe under the

night sky that motivated him to underscore those verses of Job, and that inspired
him to a passionate life of studying and
observing the sky, if he had lived under
light-polluted skies?
Awe, the emotion that lies at the heart of
what motivates us to do astronomy, is only
recently getting its due from psychologists.
Less familiar than the "big ten" (love, fear,
sadness, etc.), it has been called the 11th
emotion. Humans may be the only species
that can feel it, and some people may never
experience it. Others, however, are intimately familiar with it and know well the
accompanying tingling of the spine.
Neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall has
defined awe as an "overwhelming and
bewildering sense of connection with
a startling universe that is usually far
beyond the narrow band of our consciousness." No doubt many S&T readers can

date the beginnings of their interest to a
specific occasion of awe, perhaps the sight
of a total eclipse or a majestic comet.
Do youth today still experience awe?
Increasingly, the visible universe is in
full retreat. Of course, virtual substitutes
abound: Cassini views of Saturn's rings,
Hubble Space Telescope images of distant
galaxies, and so on. Stunning as they
are, do they arouse the same profound,
potentially life-changing emotion that a
direct sense of connection to the universe
supplies? How long does it take for them
to go from "awe-some!" to "bor-ing"?
Perhaps Barnard, if he had lived today,
instead of gazing in solitude at the nearby
planets in his small telescope, would have
invested his time in Facebook. Maybe then
he would have had more self-esteem, for
recent studies have shown that use of social
media increases narcissism (self-love).
Awe, on the other hand, leads to a sense
of a small self, says psychologist Paul Piff
(University of California, Irvine), and it
encourages those who feel it to exhibit
more prosocial tendencies. They are more
generous, empathic, and caring about others than their less awe-inspired peers.
This is an argument, in my view, for
making astronomy - and exposure to
other aspects of "wilderness" - central
to schemes of child development and to
educational core curricula. If we encourage awe, astronomy's core emotion, we
will not only invite children to a lifelong
passion to investigate the universe but
encourage them to embrace kinder, more
caring communities on Earth. ✦

CATHY GENDRON

Contributing Editor William Sheehan, whose
biography of E. E. Barnard, The Immortal
Fire Within, came out in 1995, recently
retired after three decades as a psychiatrist.
84

March 2016 sky & telescope



Sky and Telescope - March 2016

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Sky and Telescope - March 2016

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Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - Cover1
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - Cover2
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 1
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - Contents
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 3
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - A
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - B
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 4
Sky and Telescope - March 2016 - 5
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