Science in the Bluegrass — There’s beauty in things we cannot see

Chris Graney

There was beauty in April’s total solar eclipse. We could see it.

I saw both the 2017 and 2024 eclipses. Seen through a telescope, the totally eclipsed sun was absolutely gorgeous both times. In 2017, the glowing corona surrounding the eclipsed sun seemed textured and creamy-looking, with streamers within it. April’s eclipse featured some big solar prominences (glowing gasses suspended above the sun itself) including a big loop that was even visible to the naked eye as a bright red spot hanging off the eclipsing moon. Seen through the telescope, it glistened with varying reddish shades and lots of little details, and was beautiful! Both the corona and the prominences seemed dynamic, charged with energy. 

Photos don’t do these features of the “solar atmosphere” justice. Their beauty seems unique in human experience and suggests something about beauty itself. 

Some people attempt to explain beauty through randomness and evolution. We see beauty in flowers, they say, because flowers were connected to some advantage for survival. Therefore our reaction to flowers is like our reaction to cake icing. Cake icing is dense in calories; some random genetic mutation gave our ancestors a greater appreciation for dense calories, an advantage when food was scarce; thus, we like cake icing thanks to evolution and survival of the fittest. Evolution did something similar with flowers, they say. Thus, we call icing “tasty” and we call flowers “beautiful.”

We can look through telescopes and see galaxies, nebulae and star clusters that we might find beautiful. However, humans have been seeing such things for all of history; the Milky Way galaxy and its Orion nebula and Pleiades star cluster are all visible to the naked eye (if you are removed from wasteful artificial lighting, anyway).

We see beautiful images from the Hubble or Webb telescopes, but those images are highly processed. They do not represent what we would see if we were looking out the window of a spacecraft. They are modified to enhance scientifically important features, and to conform to our ideas of beauty. 

Early microscope users marveled at the beauty of small creatures seen through microscopes. Robert Hooke wrote in his groundbreaking 1665 book Micrographia about how the beauty of a gnat seen through a microscope reflected the hand of God, and how God’s power was such that God could pour care and beauty into even those things we cannot see (or could not, before microscopes): “Take this [gnat] creature altogether, and for beauty and curious contrivances, it may be compared with the largest Animal upon the Earth. Nor doth the Alwise Creator seem to have shewn less care and providence in the fabrick of it, then in those which seem most considerable.” Nevertheless, a gnat is familiar. We can see similar bugs with our eyes. 

Left, the corona in the 2017 eclipse. Right, the looping prominence in the 2024 eclipse. (Photos courtesy of Chris Graney)

The solar atmosphere, by contrast, is utterly unfamiliar. It is gasses heated to incredible temperatures (no wonder they seem dynamic!) on a scale that dwarfs our entire planet. If you could teleport the biggest mountain, Mt. Everest, or even the entire Himalayan mountain range, into that big, beautiful April prominence loop, you would hardly see that vast mass of rock as a speck! Yet we can see the loop, and corona, as is—unfiltered, unprocessed and beautiful.

And we can only see the beauty of the solar atmosphere in a rare few minutes of total solar eclipse. The overwhelming majority of people across history never see such an eclipse, meaning the solar atmosphere could confer no survival advantage. Beauty exists, eclipses tell us, independent of us. Perhaps Hooke would have said that the solar atmosphere is beautiful because God can pour care and beauty into even those things we cannot see.
Chris Graney lives in Louisville and works for the Vatican’s astronomical observatory: www.vaticanobservatory.org.

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