Friday, 10 October 2014

day moon

As I was walking from the car park into work this morning, I saw a beautiful (nearly) full moon.

moon over Goodricke: taken at 07:53 BST, in York, UK

As I was looking up at the moon, admiring its beauty in the clear blue, there were a load of resonances bouncing around in my brain: that there had been a total lunar eclipse a few nights ago (not visible from the UK, unfortunately); that although the moon looked full it couldn’t be because (a) the total lunar eclipse was a few days ago, and (b) the sun was also in the sky (see my shadow in the photo); that the moon looked blue because of the blue sky; the blue is from Rayleigh scattering; that people had been to the moon, but a long time ago now; that the moon is far away and actually rather big, but not as big as the solar system; and the solar system is in the galaxy, and we can see the galaxy at night; and...

And then I became consciously aware of the resonances, and revelled in the feeling.  And realised that part of my admiration was due to those resonances.

And then I remembered a piece I had written a few years ago.  Okay, 25 years ago.  It was a rant brought on by some event I now can’t even remember, but the sentiment remains.

Starry Starry Night

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. 
— Walt Whitman

When I see that quotation used to justify ignorance, to justify pride in ignorance, I get angry. Angry because knowledge, including scientific knowledge, does not diminish beauty.

I enjoy music. I listen with great pleasure to a Bach concerto, to a Tchaikovsky symphony. I recognise that they are beautiful. But I am untrained in music, and I know that I am missing something, not appreciating the full beauty. I know this because my more knowledgeable friends have told me so. They have told me that their appreciation of music is enhanced by their deeper knowledge of it; that music is more beautiful to those who know and understand its internal structure, its history, how it builds on and extends previous works. I believe them when they tell me this. They do not hear the music the way I do; they have a richer experience.

So why do many artists feel hostile to scientific beauty? So hostile that they deny its very existence? Why do they insist, untrained in science as many of them are, that their appreciation of the beauty of a starry night, or of a clear blue sky, is better than mine, more real than mine, simply because I know the physics, too? How can ignorance enhance beauty? I would be wrong to claim to appreciate music more than a trained musician. And these people are wrong to pretend they find a starry night more beautiful than I do. Ignorance is not bliss, it is emptiness. I do not see the stars the way they do; I have a richer experience.


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