Sunday Science Poem: Big Dumb Objects, Arthur C. Clake, John Keats, and the Sublime

RamaThe purpose of the Big Dumb Object in science fiction is to cure us of our familiarity with the universe. We tend to forget that the universe is complex, vast, exotic, eerie, and downright mystifying. Our daily experiences with its odd phenomena constitute what is normal, and normal is, of course, that which we’re inclined to take for granted. Among the bizarre things we accept as normal are the spontaneous development of a child into an adult, our ability to perceive coherent images and sounds that reach us through a tangled mess of reflecting waves, that there “are mountains in Chile, and not a hill in La Plata,” and the fortunate fact that Jupiter hasn’t yet sent the Earth spinning out of the Solar System.

Big Dumb Objects are metaphors that regenerate the strangeness of the universe in order remind us that a strange universe is a necessary condition for the sublime experience of scientific discovery. Two writers who knew this well were Arthur C. Clarke and John Keats.

Clarke was the master of the Big Dumb Object story, and Rendezvous with Rama (1972) is his classic example. Astronomers in the year 2140 discover an immense, cylindrical world-ship passing through the Solar System, which they name after the Hindu god Rama. Humans have only a few brief weeks to explore this alien artefact before it passes beyond the Sun and out of their reach forever. The space ship Endeavour makes a landing, and its crew enters to find an entire outside-in world, complete with ocean, centrifugally held against the walls of the spinning cylinder. Rama appears to be uninhabited. During their short period of exploration, the crew members discover only hints of the purpose of various parts of the ship and the nature of the beings who built it. The Ramans themselves remain unseen, and the Endeavour soon has to leave.

The mystery of Rama is unresolved, but the experience has left the crew transformed, their blown minds unable to recapture their previous mundane perspective. Clarke’s point is this: scientific discovery is not only a way to achieve knowledge; it is a means of sublime experience.

There is a connection between the sense of awe evoked by Rendezvous with Rama and this week’s Sunday Poem, Keats’ “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer,” noted by Sam Jordison in his series on Hugo Award winners. Keats wrote his famous sonnet in 1816, during an intense period of hung-over inspiration after a night of drinking and reading Chapman’s translation of The Iliad. (If only all of our hangovers were that productive!) In the poem, Keats compares his first experience of Chapman’s Homer to sky-watcher William Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus. The historian Richard Holmes says this about the poem:*

“Physical vision – one might say scientific vision – brings about a metaphysical shift in the observer’s view of reality as a whole. The geography of the earth, or the structure of the solar system, are in an instant utterly changed, and forever. The explorer, the scientific observer, the literary reader, experience the Sublime: a moment of revelation into the idea of the unbounded, the infinite.”

Now science is not a permanent high. In the lab, we don’t experience the Sublime very often (it wouldn’t be sublime if we did, would it). But the first sight of a new pattern emerging in the data you just plotted can, on occasion, be mind-blowing. It is a sweet reward for the long, mind-numbing periods of troubleshooting, de-bugging, drudgery, and self-doubt that make up most your time as a scientist.

"On first looking into Chapman's Homer"

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
   And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
   Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.	 
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
   That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
   Yet did I never breathe its pure serene	 
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

*Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder, New York, 2008 p. 207
Image credit: Stanislaw Fernandes, cover to the 1978 Del Rey/Ballantine edition

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