Totally Awesome

Article excerpt

Totally Awesome Essayists examine what evokes our sense of power and wonder. BEYOND THE FINITE: THE SUBUME INARTANDSCIENCE Edited by Roald Hoffmann and lain Boyd Whyte, Oxford University Press: 2011. 208 pages.

ROALD HOFFMANN, coeditor of this slim yet affecting volume, speculates that most scientists find little relevance in contemplating the sublime, a state that Edmund Burke once described as "tranquility tinged with terror." Yet while science and engineering encourage dispassionate scrutiny of their subjects, many practitioners would admit to a sense of wonder when encountering the mysterious and infinite. So why not accept that? Hcufmann asks. This basic premise underlies most of thes nine essays, authored by academics whos interests range from cinema studies and art history to physics, me Hubble Space Telescope, neuroscience optical technologies, and architecture, ioffmann himself was awarded the 1981 Ni bel Prize in chemistry. In more recent years, however, his philosophical musings have found expression in poetry and plays, and now in this collection exploring the subirne in art and science.

Much of the discussion in tnese essays is given over to defining the sublime, often grounded in Burke's 1757 conceptualisation of that which is vast, powerful, and aweSnspiring, distinctly separate from the beautiful. Also influential is Immanuel Kant, who clarified that the sublime is not located in "the natural object, the mountain or ocean," notes art historian John Onians, "but in the human response to it." In his essay, Onians is intrigued by scientific explanations of such reactions. When the brain senses an enormous, looming shape, it generates a fearful, alert response; yet the chemical response also engenders feelings of well-being or transcendence. New findings in neuroscience may help develop "a practical critique of the sublime," Onians believes.

Several authors draw distinctions between the sublime and other categories of aesthetics. Stanford film studies specialist Scott Bukatman considers cinematic "disobethent machines" that he terms either uncannily disturbing or sublimely terrifying. The former are rooted in domestic "conundrums of logjcand rationality," wJule-lhTliatter transcemTlmndaries - think Frankenstein and King KoHgy, The sorcerer's apprentice in Walt Disney's Fantasia incorporates aspects of the uncanny in the figure of the encnanted brooms; but sublimely terrifying occurs "on the darlest levels" waen these mindless automated begin to reproduce rapidly and spin out of control, seemingly without end. …