One of my favorite words in the English language is “wonder.” I use it on my everyday conversations and on my design and research processes. Although I rarely reflect on the meaning and polysemy of the term, this week I have been thinking a lot about its semantic richness. A group discussion during the Berkman kick-off last Tuesday triggered a stream of thoughts that I continue to untangle on my mind.
At the discussion we talked about the ambiguous character of “wonder” and its double character as a tool for surprise, discovery, and curiosity, as well as a tool for obscuring, hiding, and concealing. While we talked and exchanged our ideas about this concept and how it influences and inspires our work, we also remembered that going down the rabbit hole (to wonderland) could be both beautiful and terrifying. Alice’s adventures could be be read both as fantastic and horrific.
Both as a noun and a verb, the term “wonder” keeps its ambiguity and remains playful. Its meaning can easily escape a fixed definition. It is slippery. I wonder why. The dictionary tell us in one of the definitions that “wonder,” as a noun, means “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.” Strangeness and uncanny. Wonderful and mysterious. As a verb, the term means “to desire or be curious to know something,” “to feel doubt, admiration, and amazement.” Marvels. Wonders. Curiosities. Everywhere we find them. Wonder, as a concept, is a poetic tool. It fosters creativity, but it can also be used for hiding knowledge. Wonder is also at the core of our learning. Powerful learning emerges from being surprised, and from having a desire to know and to understand.
Take for instance the sculptures of Arthur Ganson. I revisited them yesterday at the MIT museum and was moved by their capacity to surprise. They are expressive and wonderful. The movement of their delicate machinery is a dance full of gestures. Looking at the “Machine with wishbone” sculpture, for example, one wonders about the relationships between the multiple gears and how they transmit motion to each other and also to the “wishbone.” The little and delicate bone, in front of an intricate and complex machinery with wheels, becomes a humanized object that seems to be carrying a massive machine. The kinetic sculptures becomes a metaphor, in absurd in a certain sense, but also explicable by the logic of gears and the transmission of motion.