Northern lightbulbs by the millihelen

Monday, 20 March 2006 — 12:15am | Insights, Science

It occurred to me, as I observed a balletic display of aurora borealis at 28,000ft on my flight back from Ottawa, that the aesthetic beauty we assign to natural phenomena is not a response to the elegance of organized expression in the space normally occupied by chaos. In reality, the acknowledgment of beauty is triggered by the impossibility of reconstruction. In the eyes of the conservative aesthete, artistic merit is for better or worse measured by the perceived difficulty of producing the work, be it a challenge of technique and craftsmanship or a challenge of human imagination.

Contemporary interpretation dispenses with the subjective value judgment of beauty, opting instead to locate meaning in an incubating social context or history. But it is not invalid to isolate a work and study the system that pervades it, and the most isolable works of art are those that speak for themselves. We are in awe of the cosmos because it speaks to us and begs for a descriptive system of construction as elegant as its singular and holistic illusions, and all the while it knows with a playful cheek that we will never find a total order to our satisfaction.

This is one of the great paradoxes of science. An imperfect approximation is a factually distant imitation. Yet there is the lingering feeling that even a perfect reproduction, which one already admits is unachievable, is incapable of capturing the subjective element that this was something assembled without the aid of man.

The moment we give up on making an aurora happen is the instant we call it beautiful. And in this sense, natural beauty is the upper asymptote at the unattainable limits of human achievement.

On arriving at this epiphanic juncture, some find God. Others find the Disneyland fireworks and say, good enough for me.


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