Science and the sublime

David: What makes something beautiful?

SG: What makes something beautiful is actually quite ineluctable. It is a feeling. It is something that I feel on encountering beauty. But, of course, there’s a whole range of this feeling which is why people have tried to separate beauty from the sublime, or from the picturesque. So there is the merely pretty as opposed to the beauty that actually approaches terror. One of my favourite poets is… well, one of my favourite pieces of poetry is The Duino Elegies and I’ve been rereading them recently. And the connection between beauty and terror is, I think, why they mean so much to me. Because he talks about beauty as terror… just about bearable.

David: He says ‘every angel is terrifying’.

SG: Every angel is terrifying. And beauty is terror that we are only just able to bear. And that’s the kind of beauty I experience when I’m looking at doing science or when I’m writing a novel. That’s the beauty that I really crave. There’s also other kinds of beauty, like in gardening, or…

David: But what makes a beauty terrifying for you?

SG: So, I’ve been thinking about that a little bit, and I think it’s that sense of approaching a truth – and I’m using the word ‘truth’ here a little bit loosely right now – approaching a realisation that will disperse something in me, that will unsettle me.

David: Change you?

SG: Change me, yes. And this notion of coming... I think it’s the terror that Rilke was talking about. The idea, the fact, the comprehension that we are in fact capable of having these huge realisations, ones that actually overwhelm us and make us feel that we are understanding something that we perhaps shouldn’t understand, that we shouldn’t go there. This idea of ‘where angels fear to tread’, I think that’s where the terror lies. And you come close to it when you understand something in mathematics, which, I mean, I haven’t been doing physics or mathematics for a very long time, but I do remember that feeling of beauty and the edge of terror.

David: Is it a sense that you’re approaching a truth which is bigger than you are…?

SG: So vast.

David: …and older than you are?

SG: Yes.

David: Because so many metaphors of understanding are to do with the hand ‒ like ‘I’ve grasped that’, or ‘I shall hammer this into shape’. And then there’s another kind of knowledge where you… it’s that word: ‘understanding’. You just stand under it, like you stand under the nave of a cathedral, and you can glimpse up and get a sense of the shape. But you know it’s vaster than you, and much older.

SG: Yes. Yes, that’s it.

David: Have you had that feeling in your work sometimes?

Ard: I’ve never thought about it that way, but I think I have, now that you mention it. It’s something about that truth being so beautiful and pure, and you sometimes feel almost impure before it. It’s a strange kind of thing. Terrifying is interesting. I never thought about it that way.

SG: And maybe, actually, when we do encounter these truths, what we experience is both: both the sense of standing near that precipice, or in that cathedral, but also something of the ‘I have grasped it’. So part of us is probably also experiencing a satisfaction of grasping it, and then the rest of us is edging towards that precipice.

David: One of the things I found fascinating when we were talking about the sense of a truth bigger than we are, and was there already, so older, is that it’s so close to how people describe encounters with the religious ‒ that you’re in the presence of a power that’s older than you are and greater than you are, that knows things that you don’t and was there before you. So it has all of the same qualities, and I wonder if that’s why for scientists who several centuries ago were Christian, they fit together, because it’s the same encounter with something older, bigger, more powerful. Does that…?

Ard: Yes, that’s interesting.

SG: I think it’s the religious sentiment.

David: In science?

SG: In science. But the religious sentiment is, to me, what’s interesting about religion. Because it does have…

Ard: This kind of transcendence.

David: And so there’s the possibility of having that same set of experiences which the religious person would have…

SG: Yes, I think so.

David: For them, they would speak about approaching God, but for the scientist, they’d say approaching a truth. But it’s the same; it would feel the same.

SG: The same sentiment.

David: It would be the same inside experience.

Ard: Or related.

David: Or related.

Ard: Yes.

David: Does that work for you? Because Ard is religious and I’m not. (I’m just making this up.) Is that possible from where you sit, or does it just sound like flowery language?

Ard: No, I hadn’t really thought about it quite like that before. But I do think when you discover something… So, there are quite a few scientists who are religious, and they’ll typically say, ‘Well, my experience of discovering something scientific is not that different from my religious experience. It’s something… I’m finding, something that’s bigger than me that I’m touching.’ And for them, and for people like myself, it points towards our religious sense. It points towards God.