How to Create Wonder with Data and a Physical Object

“And the T-Rex was SO big!” squealed my best friend Emily, who was sitting next to me on the bus ride to Kindergarten. It was a humid Florida morning and my legs were sticking to the seat, but I hardly noticed because Emily was spilling every detail of the coolest new movie: Jurassic Park.

I was shocked that her parents let her see the movie (mine had told me that it was too scary for a 6-year-old), but I was even more shocked by what she said next:

“The T-Rex was bigger than THIS BUS!”

Bigger than this bus? But there’s a ton of kids in here! Could we all fit inside a T-Rex’s stomach? Emily and I looked around the bus with wild eyes, imagining the space around us filling up with the body of a giant dinosaur.

I still remember this moment 27 years later. Why? Because of the intense sense of wonder that Emily’s comparison evoked.

drawing of a T-rex body and a yellow school bus inside its stomach
original art by the author

What is wonder?

Wonder is a powerful feeling. Science writer Sandi Schwartz says, “Awe allows us to transcend the ordinary, tests our concept of time and scale, gives us the sense of being small in a grand universe, and helps us to truly be in the moment.”

How do we feel wonder? Many things can evoke wonder, from a beautiful landscape to a giant ocean wave.

Feeling wonder or awe can challenge our view of the world, help us see past our usual narrative, and prompt us to ask questions in a search for context and understanding.

Beyond that, why is feeling wonder important? I think it can be the first step to really seeing something, which makes it easier to care, and then hopefully take action.

Three circles overlapping. Each says “wonder”, “care”, “act”
original art by the author

Stunning example

One way to evoke wonder is to make the reader feel small in comparison. This stunning graphic from Reuters brilliantly invokes a sense of wonder by visualizing the vastness of the plastic pollution problem we face.

By combining data about the number of plastic bottles sold and an illustration of New York City, this graphic made me feel extreme awe at the extent of the problem. This pile is looming over the city — the same city that feels enormous when I’m in it.

I already used reusable water bottles, but this graphic made me re-evaluate all the other places that I used plastic in my life and seek out alternatives (e.g., reusable plastic bags!). Wonder, care, act.

From visual to physical

This feeling of wonder bubbled up inside me again when I recently interviewed Miriam Quick and Stefanie Posavec about their new book, I am a book. I am a portal to the universe.

The book has data encoded into it that you experience as you flip through it — features like its weight, the sound it makes when you shut it, or how fast you turn a page are all used to give you context about something interesting in the world. My favorite one is where you put the book up to your mouth, stick out your tongue, and see how long your tongue would be if you were a butterfly.

Feeling wonder from a visual image is one thing, but to feel wonder through an everyday physical object like a book is a unique experience.

Inspired by their ability to arouse a sense of wonder about our world by using the physical characteristics of a book, I challenged myself to create a physical experience for my daughters (ages 4 and 6) that would evoke wonder for the world around them, too.

It worked out surprisingly well because the experience led to a conversation that I didn’t expect to have…

Here’s what I did to create wonder with data and a physical object, step-by-step

→ First, I learned from Miriam and Stefanie that you need to take a look around and take stock of the physical materials that you have at hand. You can’t create an experience with something you don’t have!

I pulled out a handful of things that were laying around my kitchen: a bottle of sprinkles, an orange, and a spoon.

picture of a bottle of sprinkles, orange, and spoon
my options — sprinkles, orange, spoon

→ Second, you need a characteristic of your object that you’ll use to create your experience. I jotted down some features of my objects: their length, temperature, texture, weight, color, smell, lifespan, what it’s made out of, and what’s inside it.

I settled on using the height of one sprinkle.

picture of 6 multi-colored sprinkles
Sprinkles! The longest one was 0.25 inches long.

→ Third, you need something to compare to. I needed to compare the height of the sprinkle to something. I wanted to make sure my daughters felt a part of the experience, so I chose to compare the height of the sprinkle to the height of my 4-year-old.

By scribbling out a proportion, I found that the height of the sprinkle to my daughter’s height would be like my daughter’s height to something that’s around 588 feet tall.

lined paper with equation on it to find proportion.
my scribbled calculations

Then I googled “things 588 feet tall” and got long lists of skyscrapers, but it sparked an idea: “Ah-ha! The Washington Monument!” We live on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. so it was a natural choice. (It’s actually 555 feet tall, but close enough!) My girls had only seen it in pictures or driving by, so I knew they didn’t have a sense of exactly how tall it really is.

night-time image of the Washington Monument
whizzing by the Washington Monument

→ Fourth, explain your comparison! I went into their room and told them to stand up. I showed them the sprinkle and commented how small it is. Then I held it by their feet, and said,

“You’re this sprinkle, and here’s you standing next to the Washington Monument. That’s how tall it is!”

They loved it! They were amazed at how they towered over the sprinkle and began making the sprinkle talk and bounce around each other’s feet. I didn’t have any expectation past this, but then my 6-year-old asked, “How do people build things this tall anyway?”

I wasn’t exactly sure how they built the Washington Monument, but I told her it might’ve been with pulleys. I explained what a pulley is. She responded, “I remember seeing something like that in our fact book about how Egyptians built pyramids; they used ramps and ropes.”

image of a page of a book with the article “How did the ancient Egyptians build pyramids?”
A page of the National Geographic Kids WHY? book

We pulled out the book, and I read aloud how the pyramids were built. We talked about what it would be like to pull these rocks up a hill all day. They both agreed that it’d be a tough life, and my 6-year-old said, “I’m glad I get to go to school instead!” ?

Could this be? A single pink sprinkle can take a conversation from wonder → engineering → history → empathy → gratitude.

What a success! Who knew that putting together a data point and a humble household object could lead to such interesting conversations?

Looking back, I could’ve kept the conversation going and pushed us to act after these feelings of wonder and caring. It would have been the perfect opportunity to suggest a volunteer activity, or ask them what they thought we could do to help someone else.

If you try this at home, here are a few tips to fan the flames of wonder:

→ If you present your idea and get crickets, say “can you imagine if…”

→ If you want to tie it back to something specific, say “remember when…”

→ If you want to keep the curiosity going, say “let’s find out…”

You don’t need a lot to spark wonder—an everyday object and even a single data point will do. The goal is to pull someone out of their usual way of seeing the world to set off a chain of thoughts and questions. Even a cupcake sprinkle can achieve that!

If you’re lucky, you’ll evoke wonder and inspire someone to care and act. But at the very least, you might create an experience that will live vibrantly in someone’s memory for 27 years. Not bad. ?

P.S. I’ve been keeping a list of things that have evoked a sense of wonder from me. These might spark an idea for your own experience:

  • Feeling connected with others
  • Chaos that falls into line
  • Wild and unforgivable force
  • Extreme vastness and mystery
  • Human-made thing that mimics nature
  • A small change that has a disproportionate effect
  • Feeling all-powerful in my actions
  • Not knowing how something works
  • Not knowing where something came from
  • Some object or force seems omniscient
  • Something long-awaited is finally happening
  • Something I haven’t seen before
  • Feeling that there’s so much happening that I don’t know about
  • Something is big and powerful, but peaceful and non-threatening
  • Someone taking a big risk
  • Those boundaries aren’t really boundaries

Thank you to Miriam Quick and Stefanie Posavec for inspiring this experience. Thank you to Claire Santoro for encouraging me to write this and your keen editing eye.

Alli Torban is an Information Design Consultant in Washington, D.C., and host of the podcast Data Viz Today.