Hubble and the Sublime: The Fear of the Infinite
Twenty-five years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit around the earth. In that time, it has sent back more than a million images, many startling, like the “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula. The massive columns of the Pillars, seen in the image below, are up to five light years long. That is over twice the width of our solar system. Inside the columns, stars are being created from gas and dust. Our sun was formed in a similar environment.
But the Pillars of Creation may no longer exist. There is evidence to suggest that a shockwave from a nearby supernova destroyed them 6,000 years ago. But it will take a thousand years for the light from that time to reach us and show what happened.
From exploding stars to colliding galaxies, the photos from Hubble make us aware of the staggering immensity of the universe. The glimpse of eternity that these sublime images offer can arouse anxiety, even terror. In the words of Schopenhauer, when “we lose ourselves in the contemplation of the infinite extent of the world in space and time…or indeed when the night sky actually brings countless worlds before our eyes, so that we become forcibly aware of the immensity of the world-then we feel ourselves reduced to nothing…like drops in the ocean…” 1
The images of Hubble are best described as "sublime," as defined by the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke. For Burke, the sublime always has an element of terror. “Indeed terror is in all cases whatsoever…the ruling principle of the sublime.” 2 This is very different from our everyday usage where the sublime usually means the elevated, the majestic, or simply the beautiful.
For Burke, the sublime, in its highest degree, causes astonishment, a state in which our whole attention is captured and our reason suspended, as we are seized by horror. The sublime is essentially our emotional reaction to an object of terror. Anything suggestive of tremendous power or infinity, for instance, the ocean, violent storms, earthquakes, the Milky Way, towering mountains, and deep chasms can be sublime.
But of all the things that provoke terror, infinity is the most terrifying, and the truest source of the sublime. “Infinity…is the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime.” 3 > Nothing affects us more than the ideas of eternity and infinity. “Infinity commonly inspires feelings of awe, futility, and fear. Who as a child did not lie in bed filled with a slowly mounting terror while sinking into the idea of a universe that goes on and on, forever and ever?” 4
Although the sublime has its origin in the terrible, it can also be experienced with wonder and delight. This is possible when terror is encountered at a distance, from a position of safety; “terror is a passion which always produces Delight when it does not press too close.” 5. For instance, the terror of being on the ocean in the middle of a raging storm can, when safely viewed from land, be sublime. Given enough distance terrifying things can cause “a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquility tinged with horror.” 6.
From Closed World to Infinite Universe
For Aristotle and the thinkers of the Middle Ages who followed his lead, the earth was the immobile center of the universe. The sun, the moon, the planets and the stars were embedded in nine crystalline spheres that rotated around the earth. The outermost sphere formed the boundary of the universe.
With the astronomical discoveries of the 16th and 17th centuries, the idea of an orderly and harmonious universe gave way to the infinite universe of Newton. The Aristotelian and Copernican view of the world as finite, closed, and hierarchically ordered was replaced by a mathematical universe, infinite in space and time.
Blaise Pascal, writing in the 17th century, is the first to face and express the experience of living in this new universe without center or limits. “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill…cast into the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened…” 7
Most pre-modern societies identified with and felt a part of an orderly, purposeful universe. That is no longer believable. We now find ourselves lost in an infinite universe. From believing we were the center of creation, our earth, solar system and sun now seem quite ordinary. Our star is but one of almost 200 billion stars in the Milky Way, our galaxy just one of over a 100 billion other galaxies. When we contemplate this vastness, the future death of our sun and with it life on earth, our lives can seem utterly insignificant, like drops in a cosmic ocean. How is it possible to feel at home in this vast, indifferent universe?
Two qualifications: (1) although the universe has been expanding for almost 14 billion years, we do not know if the universe will expand forever or contract. But even if the universe should prove to be finite, its unimaginable immensity would make it seem infinite to us and inspire the same fear suffered by Pascal. (2) In much of the universe, conditions are hostile to life as we know it. So it is possible that the earth is unique in being the only planet with life.
The more we learn about the universe the more unimaginable it becomes. Knowing that there are some 300 sextillion stars in the universe (that is a 3 followed by 23 zeroes) does not mean we can imagine it. Such numbers are as incomprehensible to the astronomer as to the layperson; they make one dizzy, induce vertigo.
It should be kept in mind that the pictures of Hubble do not simply mirror reality. “We could never see the galaxies, nebulae, and stars as they are portrayed in the Hubble images, not only because our vision does not equal the telescope, but also because the pictures themselves require human intervention…By adding color, changing the contrast, and composing the scenes, astronomers make visible… [what] would be otherwise obscured. The results do not mirror the cosmos, but necessarily reinterpret ... it.” 8
More than pretty pictures, the images from Hubble have forever changed the way we look at the universe. They can disturb our complacency and awaken us to a reality larger than the cares of everyday life. In explaining Goethe’s idea of what it means to be human, Pierre Hadot writes, “To be fully human means having the courage to become aware of what is terrible, unfathomable, and enigmatic in the world…and not to refuse the…anguish that seize human beings in the face of mystery…and which produces as much admiration as terror.” 9
The anxiety we feel about the universe is nicely captured in this comic strip from Calvin and Hobbes: Calvin and Hobbes, April 23, 1995.
A six minute video, with new images of the Pillars of Creation, can viewed at spacetelescope.org. Click Hubblecast 82.
Giles Sparrow's Hubble, (London: Quercus, 2014) is recommended for its fantastic photographs. The book is 12" x 14" and the photographs are huge.
1. Arthur Schopenhauer, vol.1, The World as Will and Representation, trans. Christopher Janaway, et. al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 39, 230.
2. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. James Boulton (New York: Routledge Classics, 2008), 58.
4. Rudy Rucker, Infinity and the Mind: the Science and Philosophy of the Infinite, (Boston : Birkhäuser, 1982), 2
8. Elizabeth Kessler, “Pretty Sublime” in Beyond the Finite: the Sublime in Art and Science, Roald Hoffmann and Iain Boyd Whyte, eds. (New York : Oxford University Press, 2010), 72.
9. Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2006), 281.