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When Science News Is Awesome

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The other day, my daughter kindly agreed to pick up her room. 

“Awesome,” I said, reflexively.

Perhaps the root of such exchanges is satirical. Describing such commonplace occurrences with a word previously reserved for a first glimpse of the Grand Canyon or one’s sense that maybe there is a god, after all, may have struck someone as pretty funny. 

In this day and age, we’re awesome-ing the word into meaninglessness. Maybe we should stop. One dictionary definition of “awe” I like: “An emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.” 

Cleaning your room should probably not qualify. If my daughter putting dirty socks in her hamper is awesome, what, then, is the Grand Canyon? 

True “awe” is a feeling, not a synonym for the obligatory “well done.” While we may not know what in advance will elicit awe, we do know it when we see it. 

But here’s a question: Do we know it when we read it? 

That’s what the KQED Science News team and Texas Tech University science communication researchers set out to find as part of a National Science Foundation-funded project, called Cracking the Code: Influencing Millennial Science Engagement, which has the broader goal of developing best practices for engaging young adults with science media.

As science reporters, we are always looking for ways to make the arcane, sometimes impenetrable subjects that are our bailiwick, if not fascinating, at least compelling. What KQED journalists have noticed in our own reading is that the best science writers are able to communicate that sense of something “awesome” at work in whatever their subject. They are somehow able to make our brains tingle, expand, or explode. We would like to do that

The first step, though, is to determine whether that feeling of awe is a peculiarity of science communicators, who are already whacking through the weeds of sometimes impenetrable scientific research and processes, or if the public at large might also feel that Awesome communicated through the printed word. Previous research on awe had asked people to remember an awe-eliciting experience or measured responses after immersion in virtual reality. But nobody had ever looked at the possibility of eliciting and capturing awe inspired by written news stories. 

One important finding from these previous studies: At its core, to experience awe is to absorb something so perceptually or conceptually vast that an individual needs to accommodate it by adjusting their previous understanding of the world. If one can successfully accommodate this new perspective, it can lead to feelings of enlightenment. But an inability to adapt in the face of something awesome can be, well, terrifying. 

(Think of that 2011 disaster trifecta, the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. Witnessing, via video news coverage, the power of natural forces to wipe away so much of human endeavor in the course of a few minutes was awesome – in a terrifying and even incapacitating way. Yet, theoretically, some might have also gained a new perspective on the fragility of so much we take for granted, causing them to cherish them to appreciate it more.)

Besides vastness and the need for accommodation, researchers found, additional facets of awe can include an alteration in the perception of time, a sense of connectedness to other people and the environment, feelings of self-diminishment, and physical sensations such as goosebumps. These are all part of something called the Awe Experience Scale, a 2019 model we used in our own research.

Our study recruited 2,088 individuals, each of whom were assigned one of eight articles or book excerpts chosen by KQED Science journalists. Our team predicted that seven of the readings induced at least some of the facets that had been determined to comprise awe. We also chose one article we felt to be awe-less, a workaday piece of journalism that functioned as a control. The awe stories included a report on a whale grieving for her dead calf; a description of breeding New Mexico toads as the atomic bomb went off at the Trinity test site; and a story about physicians in a trauma unit who routinely have to inform relatives that their loved ones have passed away. 

After reading the articles, study participants were asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements taken from the awe scale, such as, “I experienced something greater than myself,” followed by a few straightforward questions, including whether they were surprised by the article or experienced awe while reading it. Participants were also given a self-assessment from another scale, used in prior research to capture feelings of self-diminishment, physical arousal, and positive or negative emotions. 

For the purposes of the study, our researchers categorized average scores coming out to the scale’s midpoint or higher as signifying an awe experience. Lower than that: No awe for you.

A statistical analysis indicated that the five dimensions of awe fit the experiment.The main result of the study: The straightforward news story (about fungus) came in at the midpoint or slightly lower for each of the dimensions of awe, consistent with our prediction that it was the most non-awesome of the lot. Meanwhile, the whale and atomic bomb stories came in greater than the midpoint for most dimensions of awe, which we had also predicted. Conclusion: We may be onto something here, in that certain written articles contain awe-inspiring elements above and beyond an average news account. 

One thing we didn’t get to, due to travel and gathering limitations made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic, is a study measuring certain physiological reactions as respondents read the stories, associated with emotional states related to awe. That’s a potential area of further study, along with parsing out just what readers find so compelling in the texts that elicit awe – is it the language or the topic itself that creates that sense of vastness, that need to alter your perspective on the world in order to accommodate what you have just read? 

Or is it something else? 

For us journalists, it would be awesome to find out. 


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