TCS Daily

Rediscovering the Sublime in Space's Infinite Beyond

By James Pinkerton - August 20, 2001 12:00 AM

Los Angeles - I got my best look at nature in its raw, wild form-and a glimpse into the sublime infinity of the universe beyond--in my West Hollywood hotel room. No, I wasn't partying with Charlie Sheen, or Robert Downey Jr., or even Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Rather, I was clicking around on the TV and happened across a showing of "King Kong" on Turner Classic Movies. To watch that 68-year-old film was to be reminded of the days when explorers could go places and see things that no one had seen before-or at least no one had seen them and recorded them for posterity. Such adventurous viewing is the essence of the sublime, and yet it's conspicuously missing in our world today.

That's the paradox of modern times: for all our material wealth, we are psychically poor in the precious currency of sublimity, a form of wealth that was once available to anyone who could get up the gumption to go to some New World and see something fresh and grand for the first time. And so until we travel to new New Worlds, humanity will be much less well off than our GDP numbers suggest.

Long before anybody knew about gross domestic product, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant attempted to define an indefinable sublimity. In his work of 1790, Critique of Judgment, he wrote, "Nature is therefore sublime in those of its phenomena whose intuition brings with it the idea of its infinity." OK, so Kant wasn't the clearest writer in the world-sorry. Infinity, he explained, "can only come by the inadequacy of the greatest effort of our imagination to estimate the magnitude of an object." Let's translate that translation into English. What Kant is saying is that what makes nature sublime is its enormity and unquantifiability. And that explains why the world was destined to get duller, because eventually, he declared, everything on Earth would be discovered and understood. Anticipating this demystification and desublimification, he noted that only space would retain its sublime mysteries: "The immeasurable number of Milky Way systems," he wrote, "lets us expect no bounds here." Which is to say, there would be no limits on spacey sublimity.

"King Kong," released in 1933, was a huge hit, in part because it was a non-stop adventure-Kong combats everything from Tyrannosaurus Rex to giant alligators to the U.S. Army Air Corps--but also because it was still possible for audiences to imagine, in the days before routine aerial and satellite reconnaissance, that there could yet be a "Skull Island" in Africa somewhere, a place so remote that no white people had ever seen its exotic human and animal life forms-or at least not seen them and lived to tell the tale. Now, of course, the film is interesting as a curiosity piece for buffs; the 1976 remake was a comparative failure because by then the premise of a Lost World waiting to be discovered was too much of a stretch, even for teenagers.

To be sure, there's lots of stuff still to be discovered. The 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that we live suspended between two infinities--the infinitely small, and the infinitely big. As for the infinitely itty bitty, the realms of biotechnology and nanotechnology beckon us now into sublimely undiscovered countries that will take eons to map out. And I say to those explorers and surveyors, "Go for it!" But I also say this: let's not get so inward in our focus on stem-celling, cloning, nano-manufacturing, and Net-surfing that we neglect the other infinity-the infinitely big.

Space, after all, will prove pretty darn sublime. But don't take my word for it: listen to Roy Batty, describing his experiences: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate." But wait, you protest; Batty isn't real. He's the Byronic robotic hero of the 1982 movie "Blade Runner." Which is to say, the whole thing is science fiction. Well, OK. But it's set in Los Angeles.

But one needn't be here, swept up in Dream Factorying, to be reminded that non-fiction astronomy is providing plenty of clues to the Kantian unquantifiabilities in our future. Consider just a few items culled from the news in the last few days:

First, some scientists believe that Mars may conceal giant reservoirs of water underneath its dessicated surface. Scientists at the University of Central Florida in Orlando have studied decades-old photos of craters taken by the Mars Viking Orbiter, concluding that water, as well as dry material, was displaced by impact. "What a perfect medium for life on Mars," Bill Hartmann of Tucson's Planetary Science Institute told United Press International. Of course, even if life doesn't exist on Mars now-even in dormant form, deep underground--the presence of water on Mars, if proven, would make it all the more feasible for people to go to the Red Planet and stay there to live.

And then on Thursday, astronomers at the University of California at Berkeley found a new planetary system orbiting 47 Ursae Majoris, hard by the Big Dipper. Scientists have discovered some 70 planets across the universe by now, but what makes these newly discovered planets special is their circular orbits. Most other planets have elliptical orbits, thus causing extremes of heat and cold that would be less hospitable, one might presume, to life as we know it. "Of all the solar systems that have been identified, this is the one that looks the most like our own," astronomer Debra Fischer told The Washington Post. While the two planets revolving around Ursae Majoris are both gaseous, Jupiter-like hulks, the Berkeley scientists speculate that, as in our solar system, smaller planets could be nestled in amidst the big ones. Talk about a wondrous Kantian sublimity. And it's only 45 light years away. So let's go, or at least start going.

Meanwhile, scientists at Princeton, the University of Colorado, and the University of Michigan have further delineated the history of the universe, from its 13-billion-years-ago origins in the Big Bang, through the "dark ages" when light itself was blocked out, through the cosmic "renaissance" when stars formed and burned away the haze, to the era when stars formed into clusters and galaxies, all the way to the present--when the August 14 New York Times offered pictures of a universe that looks less like a collection of dots and more like the inside of a biological cell. Are we seeing some universal iteration of the Gaia thesis, which holds that celestial bodies can be analogized to life forms-or indeed, are life forms? That's another sublime issue, but no matter what metaphor or theory one chooses, it's impossible-especially out here in L.A.-to quibble when Times reporter James Glanz writes that the new astral-info tells a complex tale "longer than 'Apocalypse Now,' brainier than 'AI,' more populated with dramatis personae than 'The Anniversary Party.'"

The fantasies of "King Kong" and "Blade Runner" were cool, but undiscovered reality is cooler. And as the Earth itself becomes more ordinary and familiar, those who yearn, like Kant, for the sublime must look to the infinitely big in the infinite beyond.

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