Stargazing at universal perfection


CONTEMPLATE the Tadpole, a galaxy 420 million light-years away that was disarranged in a collision with another galaxy that left it with a 280,000-light-year-long tail.

Two galaxies colliding in deep space is not much like two SUVs colliding on the Baltimore Beltway. A car crash is always regrettable from a variety of perspectives: the people and things that are damaged, the ensuing traffic jam. And though folks drive by and gawk -- having a kind of aesthetic experience -- it is, of course (one hopes), an appreciation mixed with horror.

But the spectacle of colliding galaxies -- though the Hubble Space Telescope's new Advanced Camera for Surveys lets us rubberneck it -- is something that essentially exceeds or just disallows these sorts of judgments. What or who is actually damaged as star systems pass through each other for millions of years? From where we stand, nothing.

That takes the event outside the practical round of human activities: Nothing for us really turns on the question of whether the Tadpole is coming through all right or not. All we can do is gaze. This gives us an experience of a kind of perfect beauty in which we are purified of our little desires and problems.

You don't really care what happens to the Tadpole, and the Tadpole doesn't really care what happens to you. It's not worried about your Visa bill, your kid's ADHD, your addiction to cheap beer. The Tadpole is just there, being itself.

It is indifferent to our judgments, even as we see it: too vast and maybe even too beautiful to be subject to an ethical evaluation.

And the first response to these images -- especially one of the billowing Cone Nebula -- is ravishment, as if beauty were a matter of size and distance, so that whatever is biggest and farthest away from us is most beautiful.

Perhaps it is that sort of experience on a smaller scale that led people to monotheism and pantheism: that though here below in our little lives each thing was flawed, corrupt or disgusting, as a whole the universe seemed somehow perfect.

Certainly the question of whether the Cone Nebula could be more beautiful or better ordered seems to be without sense. When you have reached that scale, there is no point of view from which to judge such matters: human standards are exceeded, yet we still find ourselves applying them because we have no other ways of communicating the experience we are having.

We have nothing to throw at the Cone Nebula except a few words: "beautiful," "stunning," "vast" and so on. These are touching little signs thrown up at the impossible profusion we find as we explore and exceed our own capacities.

And when we contemplate the Tadpole or the Cone Nebula, it's hard not to gain just a touch of their vast inanimate serenity. By watching the universe through the Hubble, we're reflecting it, participating in it; in our own puny way we're becoming it, moving out of ourselves and into something vast and indifferent and more than perfect.

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He can be reached through

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