The philosopher Tolstoy wrote about how in order to live, man must find a way to connect the finite to the infinite. We need to form some kind of kinship between ourselves and the unfathomable vastness of the cosmos. “We are star stuff,” said Carl Sagan. We are made of atoms literally cooked in the furnaces of dying stars, and so in many ways we are infinite. Yet as psychologist Ernest Becker wrote, “we are nevertheless housed in heart-pumping, breath-gasping, decaying bodies.” Simultaneously gods, and worms.
And so we need a bridge, a conduit to the numinous. And perhaps no greater instrument in the history of humankind than the telescope can provide this cathartic bridge as it blasts open new tunnels between the mind and the other. Ross Anderson’s dazzling essay on the James Webb Telescope reminds us that in his metaphysics, Aristotle, called seeing the noblest faculty of man. Anderson goes on to described with requisite virtuosity how the deep field images of the universe taken by the Hubble literally mainline all of space and time into the optic nerve. So that the space telescope has downloaded space and time into our eyeball. Where as once we were blind, now we could see.
He continues, “through the sheer aesthetic force of its discoveries, the Hubble has distilled the complex abstractions of astrophysics into singular expressions of color and light.” Vindicating Keats’s famous couplet, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” And thus allowing the layman to witness the scope and grandeur of the universe through an unprecedented expansion of human vision. Something the new James Webb Space Telescope will take to a whole new level. Anderson continues, “The telescope has provided nothing less than an ontological awakening, a forceful reckoning with what is, as we get to witness galaxies pinwheeling in deep time.”
Something happens to us during these moments of introspective contemplation, drunk on awe, as we literally get to contemplate space and time on a scale just shy of the infinite that enlarges the boundaries of our being. Astronauts have called this “the overview effect,” Neil deGrasse Tyson calls it the “cosmic perspective.” We get to move beyond the self towards something grander, more majestic, ineffable. And we chase these experiences ravenously. As Henry Wismayer wrote, “as spirituality wains, experience is the new faith, and we are refugees from the mundane.”
And so we shall continue, achingly to resuscitate that sense of humbling incomprehension. So that we may say, “Ah yes, I remember what I forgot.” In the words of Nisargardatta, “The other world is this world rightly seen.”