The Profound Possibilities of Impersonal Beauty
Beauty, we so often say, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s personal, a matter of perception. But what of those things we can’t exactly perceive? Consider first the limits of personal beauty. The old Shakespearian saw still holds true in our thinking: “that which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet”. We tend, far too often, to limit our conceptions of beauty to the finite and knowable. If we can imagine its essence, name it in one way or another, limit it and presume that we can know it, then an object can be beautiful to the highest degree, or awesome when we are less inclined to emphasise adoration over other, less comforting, impressions. And we are so very often inclined to extend these limits to the inspiring infinite.
If we believe in the Christian God, who should be a vast and mysterious presence that transcends our infinitesimally bounded experience, we point out his characteristics. Compassion, vengeance, love, even omnipresence – all these rubrics define as purposefully as they limit. And things unusual, notions grand beyond our reckoning, become little more than tawdry, usual, restrained.
This unfortunate turn of perceptions often applies to our understanding of what other people have made possible, even when we don’t really understand their logic and would struggle to follow their words. I’ve been reading a great deal about Albert Einstein lately, largely to understand the background of a little-mentioned episode in his life. I’ll discuss more of that in a post soon, but for the moment I want to consider reactions to what he achieved.
For most of us Einstein is the quintessential genius, an emblem of the possibilities explored during the Twentieth Century that we’ve dragged lovingly into the Twenty-First. Amongst other things he gave us the equation E = MC2, using different notation but still meaning that an object’s energy is equal to its mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. This boils down to the observation that a small mass can hold nearly unlimited energy.
Welcome to the nuclear age.
But few of us understand the un-nerving beauty of Einstein’s equation, and how it’s one of the few popular observations of the physical world that engage us in the metaphysical. It’s not a search for God in daily life – even though Einstein was want to do that anyway – but a first principle stated boldly. Within each of us is the infinite energy of the universe.
Rather than limit the infinite, this notion expands the finite. In its raw form it’s a handsome shimmer yet to properly form. But we need a better explanation to understand the idea in all of its glory. The words need not be precise and the expression requires little real eloquence – we only need to understand the implications of both the situation itself and our understanding of the situation.
In writing their introduction to E = Einstein, a collection of essays focused on how the man’s life has affected our own, even though we know so little about him, Donald Goldsmith and Marica Bartusiak offered a poignant explanation of the famous equation. Pointing out that C as the speed of light is an “extremely large number”, which would be even larger when squared, they comment:
Every molecule in our bodies contains nuclei forged inside stars as they turned some of their mass into the energy that makes them shine.
Having read this passage we need only remind ourselves that energy is a constant – it changes form but persists. It comes to us across vast stretches of space and then passes on. But in the brief moments of our lives we each embody the light from distant stars, long passed back into oblivion. We shine metaphorically as they did literally. Now that’s a beautiful thought.