Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why is the Universe Beautiful?

Why is the universe beautiful? We must be very careful with such a question, for it is easy to be distracted by the things in the universe that are beautiful. We may ask whether the beauty of the universe is due to the brilliant colors and complex designs of the planetary nebulae, or the majestic and grand gas clouds which give birth to the stars, or the simplicity of spherical bodies moving harmoniously in ellipsis around the sun, or the seemingly endless expanse of galaxies and the limitless possible worlds that could be out there. But any of the answers to these questions would fall quite short of answering the present question: why is the universe beautiful? We do not seek in our questioning an understanding of the beautiful things in the universe, but rather an answer to that which makes all things in the universe beautiful. What is it that makes the universe beautiful? This is our question, a way or path of thinking that will hopefully lead us to the essence of the beauty of the universe.

The beauty of the universe has many characteristics. We often speak of its beauty as simple, complex, grandiose, vast, deep, and full of wonder. When we look at the many pictures and images that the Hubble Telescope gives us, we experience nearly all of these things, calling them beautiful. But we must ask ourselves, are these images and the universe in which they exist beautiful because of these characteristics, or are these characteristics of beauty in the universe merely effects, pointing us to the true essence of their beauty? It is the latter that we seek, since although each of these characteristics is considered beautiful in their own varied ways, these beautiful things are particular modes or ways of being beautiful, not beauty or the essence of the beauty of the universe itself. We must keep thinking so as to find a cause, something responsible, for the varied and manifold beauty of the universe.

Let us, then, look in a different way. Let us make a detour so as not to be distracted by the many beautiful things of the universe. Let us seek the help of Plato and his understanding of beauty in hopes that after such an understanding has been set forth, we can come back and see truly the beauty of the universe. In the sixth book of the Republic, Plato tells us that all things that are beautiful are beautiful in so far as they are true. The truth of things is the light, making intelligible or perceptible to us the beauty that is. The source of this truth is the good itself. Plato puts this relationship between beauty, truth and the good in terms of the sun. The good, he says, is the sun, radiating the light of truth, which illuminates the beautiful things we perceive. The good just as with the sun is not something we can see, or look at. It is too great for our eyes to behold. But even if we could look at the good itself without mediation, we would never actually see it, for we would only see the truth and knowledge (light and radiation) produced by the good (the sun). Furthermore, truth and knowledge are beautiful things, and all things are beautiful in so far as they are true. Thus, truth and knowledge (the attainment of truth) always appear within beautiful things; we can only come to truth and knowledge by way of the beautiful. Moreover, we perceive something as beautiful because it has in its own way reflected or refracted the light of truth, a truth which has shown from the good itself. In this way, beauty is the reflection of the good, or the reflection of that which the good produces, i.e. truth. Likewise, the things we perceive are visible because of the light they refract, emit or reflect from the sun.

Turning back to our inquiry into the beauty of the universe, the essence of beauty is such because it reflects the truth (grasped by us as knowledge), which has flowed from the good. Thus, it remains for us to see in what way the universe and the beautiful things that make it so reflect truth. We might say by way of revision to the former question (what is it that makes the universe beautiful?), what truth does the beauty of the universe reflect? Let us begin our answer to this question by looking at the life cycles of stars in order to see what truth we may find in this most beautiful phenomenon.

Quite possibly the most eye-catching phenomenon in the universe, stars begin their brilliant lives as giant molecular gas clouds like the Fingers of Creation in the Orion Nebula. These majestic clouds are like a womb in which gravity begins to form small globules. Gravity continues to collapse these areas of gas into a proto-star, a spinning disk of matter that ejects material in two jets along its axis. From this stage, proto-stars begin sustaining thermo-nuclear fusion (the distinguishing feature of a star), and form one of two types of stars: either they form blue main-sequence stars due their high masses, or they form yellow main-sequence stars due to their lower masses. The amount of time that it takes for these two types of stars to form, as well as the amount of time they spend as main-sequence stars, depends on the mass of the individual stars, but in a general way, we can say that low-mass stars live much longer than high-mass stars. After living the majority of their lives as main-sequence stars, both types of stars begin a process of shell-burning in which the interplay of gravity and degeneracy pressure increase the temperature such that the byproducts of the nuclear fusion begin to burn as well. Although the number of these shells that each type of star creates is different, the general process is the same. At this point, both types of stars explode producing some of the most beautiful array of colors and shapes in the natural world. Low-mass stars give off the varied and vibrant planetary nebulae and leave the ever cooling white dwarf (the remains of the innate carbon core) behind, while high-mass stars, having “gone supernova,” give off a cloud consisting of every element heavier than iron and leave behind either a neutron star (the remains of the innate iron core) or a black hole.

These explosions affect many things in the universe. The massive amounts of gas, which are the newly created elements that make up the world in which we live, begin forming new stars and/or swirling around in the many spiral arms of the galaxies. The remaining innate cores (white dwarfs and neutron stars) begin to cool off until they dissipate into darkness. And the massive amounts of energy released by these explosions sweep large amounts of gas together, causing the life cycle to begin all over again. It is here that we might say that the truth of this beautiful phenomenon is its cyclical nature, seemingly ending where the process began. But this would be a shallow understanding of the beauty of such a process. Again, we might say that looking at the end product, the truth in the life of stars is a movement to more complexities (the creation of elements), complexities which produce brilliant and beautiful sights. But yet again, this would be to mistake the particular beauty for the true essence of beauty itself, for a movement towards greater complexities, although beautiful, is not the essence of the beauty of the universe, particularly when taken in the context of the over all movement of the universe.

We can certainly say that during the entire cycle, the star is trying to maintain a state of stability. From the earliest moments of formation in which those first molecules are drawn together by gravity, to the expanding and collapsing tensions between gravity and degeneracy pressure in the shell-burning process, all the matter that makes up a star continues to move towards a state of rest or stability. The numerous complexities that are created by this cycle (the elements, new stars, white dwarfs, black holes, neutron stars, gas clouds, and the spiraled arms of a galaxy) are not new levels of complexity to be resolved by some other process, but the manifold forms of beauty created by the reflection of this truth: that the life cycle of stars is a movement towards stability. The life cycle of a star, therefore, is beautiful because it moves to a state of stability. But there are other sources of beauty in the universe which reflect this same truth.

Each and every body or piece of matter in the universe seeks stability. The live terrestrial planets cool into dead terrestrial planets like Mars. The creation of our solar system involved accretion between the various bodies orbiting the sun, some colliding, other gathering material due to their massive size, but all moving to a stable orbit around the Sun. The rings of Saturn and the other Jovian planets continually grind themselves into the dust of which they consist, and due to the Roche limit, settle into an orbit around the planet that does not allow for further accretion. Stepping back further, if we look to the universe as a whole, we see that in light of the Big Bang theory the entire universe is moving to a state of rest. It is cooling. And continues to do so through its expansion.

It appears, therefore, that all of these things—the various beautiful things in the universe—are beautiful because, like we saw with the life cycles of stars, they move towards stability. In fact, the universe itself is beautiful because it partakes in this same process. Thus, we have reached an answer to our inquiry. Why is the universe beautiful? What is it that makes the universe so beautiful in its varied and manifold ways? The essence of the beauty of the universe is the reflection of that truth which is the movement towards rest or stability. And, looking back to Plato, we can immediately call this good, since all truth proceeds from the good as light, making the beautiful perceptible. Thus, we can give an additional answer, that the universe is not only beautiful because it moves to rest, but also good.

And would this not make sense within the guiding light of the Christian faith, which claims that we ourselves are moving (or should be moving) by the grace of God towards a state of rest, the beatific vision, our ultimate purpose and happiness? Yet even in a natural sense, we can admit that humans too are moving towards a state of rest, that is death. Although this death like the rest of the natural world is a falling back into nothing or non-being, natural death cannot be a true state of rest, for a state of true rest or stability would have to persist in being, not fall back into non-being. Thus, the Christian claim on truth, the truth of revelation, the Word, shines most beautifully in its supernatural truth, for it is the only thing in creation (the Word Incarnate) that reflects the fullness of the truth that only a true rest persists through death and the passing of this world, and into new life.

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