The stars call us to wonder: when government gives us the sublime

Contemplating NASA's artistic achievements and our true place in the universe

vol. 2 issue 23


Let’s back up and get a little perspective on life. I think a break from all the darkness and anger would do us all a little good. Well, it does me anyway. Deep breath, deep exhale. Let’s contemplate the stars.

Earlier this month I “attended” a lecture sponsored by the American Institute of Physics in honor of the Hubble Space Telescope’s 30th anniversary. What called me to it was that the speaker, Dr. Elizabeth Kessler of Stanford University’s American Studies program, is an expert author on how the Hubble images resemble late 19th Century paintings of the American West, a keen interest of mine.

Hubble photo courtesy of NASA.

The Hubble images in actuality are monochromatic, but are colored and enhanced by NASA, using artistic techniques similar to those of Bierstadt, Moran, and other artists whose works depicted the American West’s magnificent landscapes, so utterly different than the arboreal ones back East. Bierstadt in particular exaggerated the mystery and scale of what he saw, in part because he was commissioned by railroad and other related industries to help sell Americans on the idea of traveling there, as I recall a National Gallery docent saying on a tour once, but also because as an artist, he and his contemporaries sought to capture the sublime nature, the sheer awesomeness of a landscape many back home had no conceptual or practical context for imagining.

The parallel here is that before the Hubble Telescope, it was much harder for us Earthlings to conceptualize what space might be like. Now that we can thanks to the Hubble images, the universe feels more accessible, even if we never intend to board a rocketship. These NASA-sponsored enhanced depictions of space are partly an interpretive activity designed to leverage public support for continued funding of the telescope and its related programs. But the Hubble artists are also employed so that Americans have something that calls us to wonder, as Dr. Kessler explains in the lecture.

That is an especially lovely thing in and of itself…that our government has dedicated funding to an activity the sole purpose of which is to call us to consider the sublime. And what is the sublime? Something simultaneously terrifying and compelling.

When we contemplate the sublime nature of what the Hubble images show us, it’s perhaps more than a little unnerving to consider how vast the cosmos are around our puny selves. But isn’t it also reassuring that the dramas and political machinations we fear are dwarfed by something far more enduring and powerful than we can truly understand?

We are not the center of it all, even if we are at the heart of every moment. The paradox is liberating, if we let it be.

Below is the video of Dr. Kessler’s lecture, which I do recommend if you have an hour and wish to contemplate what is sublime and beautiful. Otherwise, the first video I have included above is an animated short narrated by Harry Shearer about Edmund Burke’s definition of “the sublime”. It’s fun and it’s short (about one and a half minutes), and it’s a lot less broody a thing to think about as we head into the weekend when hopefully we will have a respite from all the mean spiritedness. Meh. I am tired of it, myself.

Lastly, I have been gratified to see that docu-mental is really picking up a lot of interest and subscribers. Please consider passing it along if you find it helpful, unusual, provocative, and informative.

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