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  • The Rebirth of Cool:Toward a Science Sublime
  • E. David Wong (bio)

We love and hate "the cool." As educators, few things are more coveted than being recognized as teaching the "coolest" class in the school. We look forward to the rare moment when students gasp in awe or scream in amazement. However, in the quiet that returns after the last student rushes out the classroom door, we may feel an uneasy ambivalence. Perhaps we admonish ourselves that serious science is substantial, enduring, and intellectual. We wonder whether our "cool" class was merely superficial, fleeting, and mindless.

In this article I examine the cool—this idea we love and hate—and assert its importance in science education. I acknowledge that some experiences can be engaging but are superficial and unimportant—this is the "merely cool." By contrast, some experiences are deeply moving because we feel a growing capacity to perceive meaning and value in the world—this is the "sublimely cool." I draw from philosophy, literature, psychology, and aesthetics to build connections between cool and sublime experiences. By highlighting the surprisingly substantial connection between the cool and sublime, I hope to bring greater depth to the meaning of "cool," this imprecise, but honest, term. I also take care to define sublimely cool experiences in science as having a direct relationship with subject-matter understanding. It is true that the full meaning of aesthetic experiences extends beyond the grasp of words and conceptualization; however, it is equally true that knowledge and reason are central to all worthwhile experiences. The expansion of meaning and perception, not just intense sensation or emotion, is the heart of the sublimely cool experience. Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman provides a personal example of how his knowledge of science enhances his sublimely cool experience of Nature: "Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is 'mere.' I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The [End Page 67] vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination—stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light."1

Cool as a Sign of Compelling Experience

"Cool" is an intriguing expression for it is at once both crude and incisive. On the one hand, "cool" is a colloquial term used by people of all ages and backgrounds in many contexts to describe many things. So wide and informal is its use that "cool" may seem trite and banal. "Cool" is rarely chosen carefully when used: indeed, it is more often an unintentional, reflexive utterance.

Thus, the more one thinks before speaking, the less likely "cool" will be used. Nonetheless, because it is an impulsive expression, "cool" may be all the more honest. Dewey made a similar point in his observation of the word "beauty": "Beauty . . . is properly an emotional term, though one denoting a characteristic emotion. In the presence of a landscape, a poem or a picture that lays hold of us with immediate poignancy, we are moved to murmur or to exclaim 'How beautiful.' The ejaculation is a just tribute to the capacity of the object to arouse admiration that approaches worship."2 With "just tribute" Dewey emphasizes the honesty of the term. By "admiration that approaches worship," Dewey reminds us that the spontaneous uttering of "beautiful" is a sign that a powerful experience has been had. I will make a similar argument that the term "cool"—although common and ordinary—can signal the having of a compelling experience. As a compelling experience, the cool becomes an important resource for teachers.

Dewey goes on to describe how the meaning of "beauty" has, unfortunately, lost its value to aesthetic theoreticians: "Beauty is at the furthest remove from an analytic term, and hence from a conception that can figure in theory as a means of explanation or classification. Unfortunately, it has been hardened into a peculiar object; emotional rapture has been subjected to what philosophy calls hypostatization, and the concept of beauty as an essence of intuition has resulted. For purposes of theory, it then becomes an obstructive term."3

Because of the way they are...


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pp. 67-88
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