Emergent Beauty

Saturn, eclipsing the Sun. For a much higher-resolution version, click on the image, or go directly to the (very large) original version.

Though it may look unreal, it’s a true photo from the Cassini spacecraft, and it was taken from the far side of Saturn—with the Sun behind the planet. The sunlight reflects off the icy particles that comprise the bright rings, illuminating both the planet and sending rays of light out through the more dusty tenuous outer rings. The faint blue dot at the 10 o’clock position in the rings is Earth. Since Saturn will never lie between Earth and the Sun, the only way to achieve this vantage is by flying far out; we humans are unlikely to ever see a view such as this directly.

Earth as seen through the rings of Saturn.

A common theme I’ve heard—and you probably have too—is that science and knowledge take away from the raw beauty of nature. In this case, however, science brought the view to us. Without advanced technology and scientific achievement, we would never see this view of Saturn. The beautiful giant would never be anything other than a point of light in the night sky. We’d never know about its rings, its moons, its storms. Science allows us to see the full beauty of Saturn, through telescopes and space probes.

In science, beauty is emergent, arising out of understanding. Perhaps that’s why so many reject science: they have the idea that beauty should be directly received, revealed rather than something that requires a minimum of effort. However, even the slight effort is rewarding. The Cassini spacecraft isn’t primarily about aesthetics, but that’s a happy bonus for everyone, including those who don’t have much interest in learning about planetary science. If you look at images like these, though, shouldn’t that inspire you to go a little farther, learn a little more, seek the emergent beauty?

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