Post by post, Orbiter is building an online archive of wonder as it explores the big questions of the natural and social sciences
When describing his mission as managing editor of ORBITER magazine, Mark Moring considers the principal characters in the original Star Trek series. “I think about Spock, who was obviously intensely interested in the science, the technology, and the nuts and bolts of how things worked,” Moring says. “But he never really asked the questions of why things work the way they do. Kirk, on the other hand, was bold to the point of being reckless, sometimes making rash decisions, but unafraid to delve into new things.
“And then you had the conscience among those characters with Dr. McCoy who did as the why question — Why do we have to do that? or Why is it like that? He brought what I would call moral character to the story.”
As the magazine’s title might suggest, exploration of space is a topic frequently covered in ORBITER. But the cosmos is only the tip of the iceberg for the site which reports on research from physics, biology, anthropology, and sociology to philosophy and theology.
Moring sees the kinds of research and discovery covered in ORBITER, coupled with the website’s editorial voice, as a combination of clear thinking, boldness, and conscience — but perhaps with an extra measure of McCoy. Why? can be an intellectual question, but it can also provide a point of entry to wonder and awe.
Moring came to ORBITER, and to science journalism, through a route as unexpected as the website’s own origin story. The magazine was launched in 2017 by Timothy Dalrymple, one of the founders of Patheos.com, currently the world’s largest website on religion and spirituality. With funding from the John Templeton Foundation, ORBITER showcases new and innovative research on the so-called “big questions” addressed by science, philosophy and religion, and a growing library of past work to allow readers to explore individual topics deeply, and to discover related topics.
For his part, Moring has worked for years in newspaper and magazine journalism, including 20 years as an editor at Christianity Today. He sees his background in religious and general-interest journalism as an advantage when it comes to writing about scientific concepts that can sometimes be obscure: “Journalists are just naturally really curious people who ask: Why? How does it work? and What’s the meaning behind it?”
“I think God wired us,” Moring says, “to be curious people who just want to know, who want to drill deeper beyond what is is seen or measured, and to start asking the why questions behind it. It is the sort of questioning that grips the four-year-old who asks Why is the sky blue? I just never grew out of that four-year-old-ness.”
Currently ORBITER publishes several pieces a week, including newsworthy interpretations (a short post recently ran about Billy Graham’s thoughts about science’s relation to theology), summaries of recently published research projects, and columns in which contributors reflect on issues ranging from love and relationships, to the anthropological underpinnings of religious rituals. Moring’s team also puts together interactive pieces that provide innovative on-ramps to larger bodies of research. One, titled “Why Thanksgiving Matters” and published during the Thanksgiving holiday, included an overview of research on gratitude. Another recently published feature looked at the science of purpose, and includes a quiz, based on empirical findings, that users can take to gauge the intensity of their own sense of purpose. ORBITER also has a robust presence on social media, particularly on Facebook, overseen by Moring’s colleague Tara Collins.
A FOUNDATION OF PERSPECTIVE
ORBITER offers a unique point of entry to topics in the natural sciences in part because it frames them through the lenses of philosophy, theology, and ethics. In an online world competing for attention, much science journalism focuses only on what is novel. What’s new is often what makes the most click-worthy headline. A broader approach that includes reflection on the theological and philosophical implications of the science, can help orient the reader to the significance of the findings.
Moring, returning to his Star Trek musings on Kirk, Spock and McCoy, puts it this way: “I like to think of ORBITER as a little bit of all three with them, but perhaps with — and here I don’t want to give Freud too much credit — McCoy being the superego trying to keep the other two in check, by asking the bigger, deeper questions of Why? and What does all this mean?”
Gauge your sense of purpose with ORBITER’s online quiz.