Is there a Role for the Sublime in Artscience Today ?

Is There a Role for the Sublime in Artscience Today ?


This Draft text is presented for comment and rebuttal prior to its publication in Leonardo Reviews Quarterly

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It is in response  to Editorials by Michael Punt and Sundar Sarukkai which will be available in LRQ ( PDF dowload version free to appear in June).


Is the Sublime Important in Science Today?

Sundar Sarukkai (1) in his accompanying LQR Editorial states: “One can thus hopefully see why the sublime in principle is problematical for science since there is firstly no immediate attempt to grasp the sublimely real but only an ideal of it.” He refers to Kant’s notion of the Sublime as: “There is a simple idea, following Kant that captures this essence of the sublime, namely, the inability to grasp a concept in all its fullness.” Sarukkai goes on to un pack how Science has dealt with parts of the world that re ‘un-presentable” through the use of mathematics; these approaches have allowed Science to deal with various types of challenges to positivistic modeling of the world such as notions of indeterminacy, unpredictability, complementarity, uncertainty and incompleteness. He notes “The mathematics of infinity is prosaic and is reduced to everydayness through mathematical practice.”

Michael Punt (2) in his introductory editorial states on the other hand argues of the importance of the Sublime in Science: “The mutual interaction of the material (and rational) and the unknown and sublime was crucial to the scientific imaginary and, despite the interdictions of the establishment,..”; he points out that in the nineteenth century for instance there was a close coupling of science and the occult. Elsewhere I have written how Linda Henderson has been charting the concepts of the aether and higher dimensional reality have been powerful cultural imaginaries that have crisscrossed sciences and the arts. These concepts are re-appearing in recent decades in string theory, dark energy and other appeals to deep unifying factors in the structure and evolution of space, but also in the science fiction literature that has created the concepts of cyberspace as we know them. It seems to be that if we expand Sarukkai’s argument on the ‘un-presentable’ to the un-observables and the un-knowables there is a role for the Sublime in today’s science. And within this is the ecstatic nature of the sublime, confronted with a reality that cannot be grasped in its fullness; this gives the thrill of discovery an emotional equivalent of the concept of the Sublime as it has fed the arts and the sciences; the Sublime is a deeply human way of confronting the question of the comprehensibility of the world.

The Thrill of Discovery: Making the Un-Observable Observable 

During my scientific career I have been lucky to work on projects that have made scientific discoveries. This may seem usual for a scientist, but in fact most scientific work does not result in scientific discoveries of significance, and the emotional connection between personal investment and scientific discovery is often remote. Today’s hunt at CERN for the Higg’s Boson is the work of thousands of individuals over decades, many of whom will be dead before the discoveries are confirmed. The thrill will be vicarious at best and often posthumous.

The project that I worked on that I want to single out is the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer Satellite project (3). Conceived by my thesis advisor Stuart Bowyer, the purpose of the project was to make the first astronomical map of the sky in the extreme-ultraviolet band of the spectrum of light. This light, between x-rays and the ultraviolet is a daunting area of astronomy, technologically challenging and theoretically forbidding. Indeed in some astronomy textbooks of the time this band was called the ‘un-observable ultraviolet’ because the most common elements in the universe, hydrogen and helium, absorbs this kind of light almost completely. Our colleagues, one of whom eventually won a Nobel Prize, argued that the project should be cancelled because it was a waste of tax payer money; there would be nothing to see. The project was maintained by NASA, and the instruments and satellite mission operations were carried out by a team at the University of California, Berkeley where I led the instrument developing and observatory operation teams. The project involved hundreds of people over 15 years. We attended the rocket launch at Cape Kennedy, returning to our laboratory to start receiving the images once the satellite was in orbit.

I well remember the day that we were to give the first commands to turn on the cameras on the telescopes.

The team in Berkeley, perhaps 50 scientists, engineers, administrative staff and students gathered in the conference room to watch the turning on of the telescopes. We sat on the floor waiting for the first images; perhaps the technology would fail; perhaps the unobservable ultraviolet was indeed un-observable. As the data began to stream onto the screen we were momentarily silent, and then, as the first star appeared in the image there was a collective euphoria and for a moment I experienced the scientific sublime. The world was potentially knowable and through our technology the un-observable had become observable.
Michael Punt in his Editorial points out in his discussion of deep history that “Such externalism means that materials and artifacts are always implicated in our cognitive architecture rather than being simply outputs of our internal cognitive processes. Thinking through objects rather than thinking about objects becomes the description of the cognitive processes.” As a scientist we indeed think the world through objects; through our scientific instruments the un-observable becomes observable. Sarukkai discusses the use of mathematics in science, and the concept of imaginary numbers one form of the sublime un-presentable in Science. Indeed Eugene Wigner (4) is often quoted for his remark on the ‘un-reasonable effectiveness of mathematics’. It seems to me there is a double mystery. Accompanying the effectiveness of mathematics is the un-reasonable effectiveness of instruments. As I have argued elsewhere, the human body is very badly designed to understand the universe it lives in. Human cognition and human senses have evolved as part of evolutionary selection, and these requirements are very different than those needed to understand the key processes in the world around us. Yet in spite of this, through the use of mathematics and instruments, contemporary science has developed a ‘robust’ system of explanations with prediction power that models many of aspects of the world.

As Sarukkai points out science does not seek to capture the real but rather to mimic the real: “Every scientist should presumably know that the idealizations that are used in models – such as point mass objects, ideal frictionless gases – are not the ‘real’ but yet the strength of science lies in continuing to deal with these ideal objects ‘as-if’ they were real. That is, in science, nobody is really concerned about the strict match between the object and its representation or between the concept and its presentability !”. I cannot but agree, particularly as an instrumentalist scientist rather than a theorist that we can declare success when the universe becomes ‘presentable’; but surely in that gap between the presentable and the world itself there remains a source for the Sublime.
Un-Presentables ; Un-Knowables

Sarrukai defines the Sublime as « Sublime is different from, and more than, the beautiful. Sublime best captures the sense of being overwhelmed, whether ‘positively’ or ‘negatively’. This leads to a feeling that there is something more to an experience than what is expressed or grasped at that point.”
Above I have argued that indeed the process of making the un-observable observable is one scientific strategy for the Sublime. I would like to add two other concepts to the presentable (or “modelisable”). First is the idea of the ‘un-knowable’. One area of the un-knowable appears in quantum mechanics and as Sarukkai points out modern science has accommodate itself to non-deterministic mechanics not only in quantum mechanics but also in the science of complexity. Scientific notions of causality have been expanded with the fact of quantum entanglement, but also of the way that initial conditions play crucial roles in chaotic systems.
Scientists today have no problem dealing with the un-knowables of quantum mechanics. Certain separable ontological categories in our daily life, such as position and velocity, become ontologically overlapping through the Heisenberg Principle. It is just not possible to know to arbitrary accuracy the simultaneous values of two quantum coupled quantities.
The discovery of the finite speed of light also creates fundamental un-knowables. The ‘light cone’ defines the space-time envelope of causally related events. Even though we are in an infinite universe, the finite speed of light means that what is happening is parts of the universe that are farther way that the light travel age of the universe, these events are unknowable. Similarly events that are occurring inside the horizon of a black hole, these events are not only un-observable to outside observers but un-knowable to them. It seems to me that these un-knowables in science become another reservoir for the scientific Sublime.

Un-Presentables ; Un-Translateables           
Finally, it seems to me that a key issue in the un-presentables discussed by Sarukkai is the underlying epistemological reliance on human language, written and visual and aural. I think that this goes beyond the inability to describe certain ideas. Human cognitive systems develop within maturing individuals in interaction with their environment and with other humans. These languages thus are derived to be able to describe objects and events that humans encounter as they mature and live. Human language co-evolved with the human brain as it is confronted with experiences, dangerous or wonderful; human language is finely tuned to certain parts of the world.
Science is dealing with a different world. Most data we acquire on the world as scientists is not acquired directly through the human senses, but mediated via vast panoplies of scientific instruments. To know about the infinitely large, the infinitively small, the intrinsically complex, the human senses and human cognition are badly adapted and therefore so is human language.
In quantum mechanics we invent language, such as “charm”, to describe observable properties of nature. In astrophysics we call matter that we detect, but cannot see with light, we call it ‘dark matter’ even though it is of an unknown nature. We observe that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, so we attribute this to a ‘dark energy’ also of an unknown nature. It seems to me that an underlying problem of un-presentability is the un-translatability of a world observed with instruments into a language derived from human sensory experience. It is in this gap between the world of science and the world of art that it seems to me the tools of the artist and writer may be able to create connection of a larger connection. In those moments “This leads to a feeling that there is something more to an experience than what is expressed or grasped at that point”. These thrills of connection to a larger reality, together with the thrill of discovery, could be well-springs of the Sublime in Artscience today.
Some Examples         
In closing I would like to mention three works which it seems to be tackle the problem of un-presentability and un-translatability. In both of these works I experienced both awe and fear, not as a technological sublime, but an acute awareness of phenomena beyond my senses.
i) Multimodal Representation of a Hydrogen Atom      
At the Allosphere at University of California Santa Barbara (5), a team with physicist Luca Peliti, artists JoAnn-Kuchera Morin and Lance Putnam have created a visualization and sonification as a Multimodal Representation of the Quantum Mechanics of the Hydrogen Atom.
“This work interactively visualizes and sonifies the wave function of an electron of a single hydrogen atom. The atomic orbitals are modeled as solutions to the time-dependent Schrödinger equation with a spherically symmetric potential given by Coulomb’s law of electrostatic force. Different orbitals of the electron can be combined in superposition to observe dynamic behaviors such as photon emission and absorption.
The interactive component of the simulation allows one to fly through the atom with a probe that emits “stream particles” that follow along the largest changes in the probability current and gradient of the electron. The electron probability amplitude is sonified by scanning through groups of stream particles in the space. The pitch can be adjusted by the rate at which a particular set of stream particles is scanned across. “

This work is outside of the regime of scientific illustration but clearly seeks to create an immersive experience, that one can ‘fly’ through, that has sensual and emotional power.
ii) Softday: Marbh Chrios      
Marbh Chrios means Dead Zones. In 2008 Robert Diaz showed that the number of “dead zones”-areas of seafloor with too little oxygen for most marine life-had increased by a third between 1995 and 2007. It is currently estimated that there are 20 such ‘dead zones’ in Ireland and two were identified in the study at both Killybeg’s Harbour and Donegal Bay . Geologic evidence shows that dead zones are not a naturally recurring event in marine ecosystems; dead zones were once rare, now they are commonplace and increasing, which poses a serious threat to indigenous marine habitats and the human food chain.
The artists collective Softday (6 ) , as part of the Leonardo Lovely Weather Project ( 7), examined the available data from the Irish dead zones and work collaboratively with three distinct partners, local traditional musicians from An Charraig/Amhainn a’Ghlinne (Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí) in Donegal, Met Éireann (the Irish Meteorological Service) and The Marine Institute of Ireland, to address the relationship of climate and culture to sound. Softday translated scientific/environmental data into abstract ‘live’ sonifications and vocalisations. The computer generated music composition that the Donegal Youth Orchestra and the Softday Céilí Band performed, was based on eight years of related marine and meteorological data

iii) Scientific and sonic perceptions of the African Sahel      
Scientist Paul Adderly and Musician Michael Young (8) have created sonifications of soil materials were sampled from the West African Sahel at a village called Tiwa located in the lacustrine plain of Lake Chad in Northern Nigeria . “This region has experienced extremes of flooding and drought throughout history that may have displaced the human population. The village has dwellings constructed from mud-brick and thatch, surrounded by fields. Samples were taken from a pit dug close to the village. This area is subject to intense land management and receives cultural debris washed-in by seasonal rains. The materials were sampled intact with the spatial organisation of the soil maintained through processing and examination in the laboratory. The soils were found to span a 10,000 year period that includes the onset of human settlement in the Lake Chad plain c. 4000 years ago.”
“By considering a landscape that is both extreme and has long-standing cultural activity, a narrative is developed. To borrow Barthes’s terminology, the data from scientific analysis provide functions to the narrative; they are indices to the landscape and to human conditions. These data also connote actions that may be anthropogenic or environmental (such as changes in land management, house building, flooding and desertification). A narrative emerges from the exploration of these data, in which a sequence of actions is deduced from functional descriptions of physical objects, which are in turn offered for evaluation and exploration in sonic and visual forms.”
The resulting work aggregates scientific data into perceptually holistic musical scapes that gives the viewer a sense of human activity over a 10,000 year period, a piece of deep history that relies not on documents or event human artifacts but rather the inter-connection of human communities and the ecologies and climate variability they are embedded in and the traces they leave in soil.
The Two Kingdoms     
To pursue my translation analogy I would like to close with a quote from Kierkgaard which it seems to me gives an inkling of the problem of translation not between the world and scientific models, but also between the world known by the scientist and the world of the artist. Kierkgaad sets up that moment of ‘disclosure’ that would be perhaps be a modest beginning for the Sublime in artscience today:
“If I imagined two kingdoms bordering each other, one of which I know rather well and the other not at all, and if however much I desired it I was not allowed to enter the unknown kingdom, I would still be able to form some idea of it.
I would go to the border of the kingdom known to me and follow it all the way, and in doing so I would by my movements describe the outline of that unknown land and thus have a general idea of it, although I had never set foot in it.
And if this was a labor that occupied me very much, if I was unflaggingly scrupulous, it presumably would sometimes happen that if I stood with sadness at the border of my kingdom and gazed longingly into that unknown country that was so near and yet so far, I would be granted an occasional disclosure.” (9)

The Sublime and Artscience

It seems to me that the astronomer confronted with the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy and the artist trying to make sensible the very real but incommensurable phenomena of quantum mechanics find themselves in a connected search for the Sublime, for those moments of an inkling of a perhaps aweful larger context that we only glimpse partially. For the scientist the potential horror in the Sublime would be the incomprehensibility, unpresentability, of the world; perhaps for the artist the reverse? The Sublime is a deeply human way of dealing with the incomprehensibility of the world, of being in the world; and as Sarukkai states there is an underlying relation between the Sublime and morality. Here perhaps artscience practice (see for instance the “Trust me, I’m an artist: towards an ethics of art/science collaboration” performances (10)) provides one translation tool to introduce questions of ethics at the foundation of scientific thinking itself.


1. Sundar Sarukkai, Leonardo Quarterly Reviews, June 2012 URL”

2. Michael Punt, Leonardo Quarterly Reviews, June 2012 URL”


4. Eugene Wigner,




8. Adderley and Young:

9. S. Kierkeqaard

10. Anna Dumitriu and Bobbie Farsides: “Trust me, I’m an artist: towards an ethics of art/science collaboration “:


  1. Roger…this is so excellent! I have become growingly concerned about current art/science moving too far from “the sublime”, and you now bring it front and center. I have more to say but want time to study your article before doing so. Thank you for opening this door. Janet

  2. Can science based art be sublime and bring that heavenly feeling to a sci-artist? Hey, I have written on this. Here I am giving some important points of my write up.
    What is sublime? The definition of sublime can be given as: of high moral, aesthetic, intellectual, or spiritual value; noble; exalted; inspiring deep veneration, awe, or uplifting emotion because of its beauty, nobility, grandeur, or immensity; unparalleled; supreme a sublime compliment ; Poetic of proud bearing or aspect.

    In scientific research you get euphoric when you find something new. If you can help the world because of it, you get immense pleasure. In the fields like Astro- Physics or theoretical Physics, where you cannot have definite answers for all your Qs. that can be proved you may not get it. Here the findings might not have direct and immediate impact on human lives. But in life sciences- especially in the field of medicine, if you can find a cure to a disease, you really feel great joy that has no parallel in human emotional arena. It is a feeling of elation, a heavenly feeling and a moment of immense happiness and joy. Nothing can equal it. I myself have felt it when I found how to detoxify the foods using simple methods. Because it helps people!It helps people from falling sick!

    Can an artist ever feel when s/he creates an art work like Neil Armstrong felt when he first landed on the moon? Or how Watson and Crick felt when they first discovered the structure of DNA? In that way science can take you more closer to that feeling of sublime.

    Have I ever got such an elated feeling when I created an art work? No, is my firm answer!

    However, when I tried to create science based art works, when I had to overcome several difficulties I felt very happy when I succeeded. Because I would have to think science, think theories, thoughts and themes in science, think logic in those themes, think philosophy, think art, then think how to co-relate art and science, think how to make them simple so that everybody can understand, think how to present science or philosophy in an art form, then think about colours, composition and all other details that make an art work what it is. Then I would have to transfer the picture in my mind directly to the canvas or if working in other areas like installations or videos, they too would have to follow the pictures in my mind! There will be lots of things on my mind and it takes a hell of time for me to create art works based on science. Then I tried to write poetry based on my science based art works. And when I succeeded in the arena of science, art and literature interactions, I got a feeling of immense happiness but that happiness cannot be compared to finding something new in science. After experiencing all that several fields could offer, for me science is the only field that can really give that sublime feeling of supreme happiness.

  3. I believe that it’s the questions we ask, not the answers, that provide the most sublime experiences in life. It’s the quest that is transformative. For me, when an artist’s goal is to express the essence of a scientific theory or data sets in physical form, it is not only their understanding of the science, but a connection to their own humanity, that provides for a sublime result.

    One such example is…
    Julian Voss-Andreae’s “Quantum Man” sculpture.

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