Saturday, August 8, 2015

Is Nature Beautiful or Monstrous?

Art by John Kenn
Who but a mad person would attempt to characterize the universe in its entirety? The ancient Greek conceit of all things forming a cosmos, a unified, ordered whole, seems quaint, notwithstanding the cosmologist’s persistent, utopian dream of a single Theory of Everything. Early maps of the lands and seas filled in unknown areas with pictures of monsters and captions like “Here be dragons,” and there are still voids in our knowledge of what’s out there. In addition to the singularities and thus baffling unknowns in black holes and in the Big Bang, there’s an alien weirdness to quantum, merely statistical or nonmechanical events; moreover, there’s dark matter as well as dark energy which comprise most of the universe and yet which are still enigmatic. 

Still, despite those areas of ignorance, there’s an intuitive way of summarizing not just the empirical knowledge we nevertheless have, but the limits on such knowledge to which we cynical hypermodernists are especially sensitive. This is to say that the universe, that is, all of natural reality, is monstrous. But what does it mean to blaspheme in this fashion, to tar the beautiful heavens with such an insult? Is this bit of cosmicism just a nihilistic projection of a wounded soul? No, nature is a monstrosity in every sense of the word, and seeing how this is so is vital to understanding our existential situation as metaphysically homeless individuals whose consciousness, reason, and freedom alienate us from the world. 

The Universe’s Immensity

One sense of “monstrous” is obviously fitting, this being the sense in which a monstrosity is extraordinarily great in physical size, meaning huge or immense. We take such knowledge for granted, but the ancients thought the universe is considerably smaller and indeed centered on our planet. The Age of Reason decentered us as a result of increased understanding of how life arises accidentally, without any personal creator’s plan or good intentions. This sense of never having been as important as the ancients intuited feeds into the experience of nature as horrific; at least, this experience is thrust upon those whose scientific and philosophical knowledge deprives them of the conventional feel-good delusions. So the universe is indeed monstrous in scope, not a mere terran neighbourhood but an inhuman, stupefyingly vast X in which living things aren’t even afterthoughts exactly but hapless drifters, vomited up by blind and dumb material exchanges and interlocking mathematical codes.

Even this most obvious kind of natural monstrosity is deleterious to our preferred way of life. We’re biologically driven to want to feel at home rather than lost, because we’re social mammals hormonally compelled, for the most part, to form families and thus preoccupied with the task of protecting our loved ones by laying claim to a plot of land and calling it home. Homelessness is thus a mark of evolutionary failure, since it implies either dereliction of duty towards your family members or a lack of such members to keep safe in the first place. A familiar place called home that keeps out the alien noise beyond is required to ensure the healthy upbringing of children and thus the passing on of genes to future generations. In a smaller, geocentric universe, our planet could serve as home for the extended human family because the ancients could trust in the landscape’s good intentions. In the decentered universe in which there are no such cosmic guarantees of our survival let alone our happiness, our planet begins to creek like a haunted house. How safe are we really on this rock which we’ve taken for taken for tens of thousands of years, but which must likewise be fundamentally as bizarre as the rest of the universe that pursues its strange business? With the world’s alien scope comes the high probability that our genetic code’s pointless trek through the ages will eventually cease; just as an earthquake or a tornado can rip apart a house, depriving the parents of the ability to safeguard their descendants, the universe will surge in our cozy corner of it and terminate our evolution. Along with the loss of faith in our home, there’s the growing postmodern distrust in all natural, commonsense intuitions since those too bear the world’s inhuman stamp. In short, our cosmological decentralization disaffected us with the world we’d once cheerfully interpreted as being run for some familiar, social purpose, such as its being a testing ground to prove our worth to the deities. 

Formal Beauty and Natural Ugliness

Another sense of “monstrous,” according to, is “frightful or hideous, especially in appearance; extremely ugly.” Is the universe, then, ugly or beautiful? According to cosmologists and mathematicians, the universe displays qualities of formal beauty such as symmetry, harmony, balance, and proportion. Platonists distinguish between nature’s deep reality and its surface appearance, the former comprising a structure that corresponds eerily well to human mathematical analyses. Thus, nature would have to be as beautiful as the mathematical inferences are elegant: the intellectual virtues of the laws of nature would transfer to an aesthetic praiseworthiness of nature’s fundamental physical relations themselves.

This scientific sense of nature’s beauty rests entirely on the nature of mathematics, since it was Pythagorean mathematics which influenced not just Plato’s philosophy about a harmony between truth, goodness, and beauty, but the flavour of what Oswald Spengler called Apollonian or classical Greek culture in general, which culture in turn was the foundation for modern Western rationalism. According to Spengler, the ancient Greeks were preoccupied with the geometry of finite, particular bodies, as shown by their sculptures and architecture. In any case, as Smolin and Unger propose in The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, mathematics is effective not because ultimate reality is timeless and abstract, but because math abstracts from the peculiarity of particular situations, providing us with a much-simplified map of the world. Platonists then reify the map, mistaking the timelessness of the game-like aspect of mathematical reasoning for the form of reality itself. Mathematical objects are “evoked” in that we invent the rules for such reasoning so that once the rules exist, the moves in the game become highly constrained as in a game of chess or even in poetry or music or a shared fictional universe like Star Wars. We create an artificial world—in this case a model that abstracts from nature’s particularities, focusing on the most general patterns in our recorded observations, and just as fanatical players in some virtual world like World of Warcraft lose touch with reality, Platonic mathematicians and cosmologists can no longer see nature without the filter of their cherished map.

What Platonists ignore, of course, is time and thus the changeability of everything, the world as Becoming rather than Being, the Heraclitean flux that mocks our generalizations and dwarfs even the insights of our most intrepid investigators by its chaotic fickleness and preposterous magnitude. Mathematics abstracts also from the world’s substance, leaving just the barest outline of natural patterns which Plato treated as metaphysical Forms. That substance includes the content of our experience—not just the overall pattern but the identity of what we observe. Nature’s formal beauty is indeed skin deep. Underneath the forms, that is, the patterns simplified by mathematics, are the processes that are actually unfolding, the evolution of galaxies and most importantly the tragic destiny of everything in the universe, the end of all things in time. Platonic heaven is as unreal as the theistic anthropomorphism and thus so is the presumed beauty of nature’s mathematical structure. In fact, the notion that nature is beautiful involves a mental projection that’s just as dubious as theism which personifies ultimate reality, replacing Plato’s Good with God. Even our concept of formal beauty derives from our genetic preference for a certain human form. Symmetry, harmony of parts and so forth are all signs of physiological health. Moreover, that aesthetic judgment is pleasing because of what such beauty promises, namely enjoyable sex, not to mention healthy offspring, whereas sex with an ugly person would be closer to a nightmare. Of course, naturalistic cosmologists don’t think of the world in such biological terms, but their Platonism carries the vestige of teleology and perhaps even of deism. Thus, instead of the fantasy of sex with the beautiful Mother Earth, nature’s formal beauty promises an eternity in the heaven of abstract Forms or at least the bliss of contemplating such a permanent reality.

Compare this biological basis of the cosmologist’s positive aesthetic judgment with that of the philosopher’s negative one. If we think of something as monstrous, we’re disgusted by it due to a trigger of our fight-or-flight mechanism. As the definition has it, a monstrous thing is frightful and ugly. A monster’s ugliness indicates that it’s a threat, so we’re repelled by its surface features to escape the underlying danger. We instinctively fear bugs and snakes not just because their bites can be deadly, but because their alien forms threaten our childlike comfort in nature, reminding us that our happiness rests on delusions of anthropocentrism. Likewise, the universe is monumentally alien, however we might distort the truth with our power of abstraction, comparing nature’s symmetry and harmony to that of a beautiful human face or to the ratio of human body parts. The formal features notwithstanding, the substance of nature, that is, the actual shapes and sizes and temperatures and other properties and tendencies of everything from stars to black holes to atoms to the outer void are terrifying and humiliating rather than forming a pleasant, harmonious whole. The universe’s hideousness to an objective person indicates the colossal danger of venturing into outer space. If you step foot in outer space without an arsenal of protective gear, you die in around ninety seconds from ebullism, hypoxia, hypocapnia, decompression sickness, and extreme temperature variations, not to mention the long-term effects of cellular mutation and destruction from high energy photons and other particles. The alienness of bugs and snakes is magnified a trillion times over by that of a godless, undead universe that evolves until it unravels due to exactly no one’s good intention.

(Even the physicist Frank Wilczek admits in A Beautiful Question that nature’s beauty isn’t exactly like the ordinary kind. As he says, ‘by studying the Artisan’s (nature’s) handiwork, we evolve refined concepts of “symmetry,” and ultimately of “beauty”—concepts that reflect important aspects of reality, while remaining true to the spirit of their use in common language’ (200). The cosmologist isn’t supposed to be merely misusing the word “beauty” or changing the subject, but Wilczek begins his case for nature’s beauty by saying, “Many varieties of beauty are underrepresented in Nature’s style, as expressed in her fundamental operating system. Our delight in the human body and our interest in expressive portraits, our love of animals and of natural landscapes, and many other sources of artistic beauty are not brought into play” (11). Given that delight in the human body is the biological basis of all aesthetic appreciation, it’s unlikely that the cosmological kind of beauty remains true to the spirit of ordinary aesthetic judgments, after all. This suspicion is supported by the kind of “beauty” Wilzcek shows that we find in physics, namely symmetry and economy (11). Symmetry would count as beautiful, as I’ve said, but why think that economy, which is to say thriftiness, avoidance of waste, and “the production of abundance from very limited means” have anything to do with beauty? Who says a bean-counting avoidance of waste is generally pleasing rather than virtuous especially to a money-grubbing bureaucrat? True, an abundant universe would be more pleasing than a homogenous one, if only because the former is needed for life’s evolution and thus for anything to be found pleasing in the first place. But this says nothing about whether an economical means of producing a great variety of things is generally attractive to people. Wilczek seems to be showing that nature is beautiful, largely by redefining the word.)

Both the positive and negative aesthetic judgments, then, have biological causes, but only the negative one is consistent with philosophical naturalism. Platonic teleology and deism are obsolete and even the pleasure of contemplating mathematical structures goes too far if we mistake the game world of mathematical models for the real, time-bound universe. The dangers to life presented by the universe at large are obviously real. Asteroids have already smashed into Earth, exterminating millions of species. Nature’s indifference is present also in the savagery of natural selection: life is a struggle, because the competition for resources amounts to perpetual war. Animals are at war with viruses and bacteria as well as with each other. And natural forces and complexities produce not just environments that sustain life but changes in those environments that obliterate living things, as in volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and the like. Again, ugliness can indicate physical as well as mental threats, and both are perfectly real in godless nature: the world’s fundamental impersonality is opposed to all the anthropocentric delusions that have traditionally kept us blissfully ignorant. The ethically and epistemically superior aesthetic judgment of nature, then, is the negative one that the universe is monstrous rather than beautiful, since this is the judgment that coheres with the worldview which we’ve an intellectual obligation to maintain.  

The Deviant Universe

Monstrousness is also a matter of “deviating grotesquely from the natural or normal form or type.” It might seem as though nature couldn’t be monstrous in this sense since nothing is more normal than nature. Indeed, if nature is normal and artifacts and their anomalously-free creators are the deviants, then we rather than natural processes must be monstrous in this sense. But this rests on an oversight. Although normal and deviant behaviours may be objective in that the former ones can outnumber the latter, the norm is still often selected due to the interpreter’s preference even when the so-called deviant behaviours happen to outnumber the normal ones. This comes across in biology when the effect a trait is selected for needn’t materialize most of the time. For example, a cheetah’s speed is selected for the purpose of catching prey, but a cheetah may fail more times than not at that task. All that matters for the judgment that fast cheetahs are functional and thus biological normal, whereas slow ones are malfunctional and deviant is that the cheetah in question be fast enough to catch prey enough times to sustain the cheetah until it can reproduce and transmit its genes to its offspring. The preference here is to explain adaptability, and the evolutionary explanation holds even when functional behaviour doesn’t usually succeed.

A similar point holds in the case of nature’s normality. Nature was regarded as the epitome of normality only when nature was misinterpreted as being friendly to human purposes due to its being full of spirit or God’s benevolence or wisdom. That is, natural processes were regarded as normal not just because of their frequency but because nature was regarded as fulfilling our preference for having a permanent home to comfort us. After what Nietzsche called the death of God (the theistic myth’s loss of power to enchant intellectually responsible persons living in the Age of Reason), there’s no longer any such convergence. Accordingly, hypermodernists have retreated to extreme forms of relativism and skepticism, like those pioneered by the presocratic philosopher Protagoras who applauded humans for being the measurers of everything. Natural processes may vastly outnumber artificial ones, but that’s only because nature isn’t what we thought it was: specifically, nature isn’t artificial! In the Aristotelian worldview which dominated the West for centuries, everything aims towards a good that befits its type so that normality becomes the same as normativity, as being subject to a standard. Deviation meant falling wide of the proper mark. Presumably, large, heavy stones would have been more “normal” than small ones, because the large ones are more liable to fall towards their “proper” place underground. In any case, modern naturalism severs normality from normativity, so that just because natural processes differ from artificial ones and the former outnumber the latter doesn’t mean the latter are normatively deviant and thus monstrous in the sense at issue. On the contrary, postmodern solipsism and narcissism dictate that godlike, personal sources of artificiality set the standards for everything so that nature becomes deviant in its undead inability to discriminate.

The traditional aesthetic judgment must therefore be reversed: natural laws aren’t superior to human ones because the former are closer to God’s design, whereas we rebelled thanks to our accursed freedom; instead, nature is monstrous in the sense of deviating from all normativity, having no objective value or purpose, and even having laws only as an interpreter’s pragmatic simplifications. Nature deviates from the human norm of projecting standards, because natural processes do no such thing, being entirely godless as we’ve recently come to appreciate. That which is good (not monstrous) isn’t God- or purpose-infused nature, but just the emergence of godlike beings whose subjectivity allows them to create the artificial worlds of symbols and value judgments on which the notion of deviating from a preferred norm depends. The natural world deviates not because it misses its mark, but because it doesn’t rise to the level of our complexity. We prefer our artificial worlds and thus we don’t take natural processes for granted, but counter them at every turn. For example, we don’t assume that because rape or racism has a biological basis, rapists or racists should be applauded for hitting the natural target. We understand that there are absolutely no natural rights, that the difference between right and wrong emerges under social, subjective conditions, and we evidently prefer to live in the artificial worlds that take that difference seriously, as opposed to the grim, impersonal wilderness. Therefore, nature is arguably monstrous in this manner of deviating from the human norm of assigning standards in the first place.    

Sublimity and Nature’s Revolting Strangeness

One other sense of “monstrous” has to do with whether something is shocking, revolting, and outrageous. The strangeness of those parts of the universe that surpass our understanding, or at least that confound our intuitions with their inhuman aspects, provide more than sufficient warrant for the sense that nature is grotesque and monstrous rather than serenely beautiful. But the situation is more complicated because another way of saying that much of the universe surpasses our comprehension is to say that nature is sublime, which calls not just for disgust but for awe and even veneration. Here the negative aesthetic judgment shades into holy terror, into religious faith that’s indistinguishable from fear of the divine. Rudolph Otto explained holiness in terms of the numinous, which he defined as a mystery that’s both terrifying and fascinating at once. In saying, then, that nature is monstrous, perhaps I’m arbitrarily casting aspersions on nature’s mystical enormity which could just as well be interpreted optimistically, as a greater good. The earlier question reasserts itself: How could a pessimist be so arrogant as to pronounce aesthetic judgment on the entire universe after admitting that most of the universe (including dark matter) is wholly mysterious? Shouldn’t we be agnostic about nature’s ultimate aesthetic status as a stupendous work of art, merely marveling humbly at what unguided natural forces and elements have achieved?

I concede that philosophical naturalism so far leaves much of the universe as a great mystery, which allows for mystical contemplation. I deny, however, that the choice roughly of optimism or pessimism is arbitrary. If nature is sublime and therefore holy, if the world is strangely inhuman precisely because it’s so much greater than even our entire species and genera, with our primitive, parochial preconceptions, the noble response isn’t to lapse into agnostic apathy but to take what Kierkegaard called a leap of faith in some conception of the admittedly unknowable Absolute. The task isn’t to settle for an idol or to anthropocentrically mistake the map for the terrain in the manner of a Platonic cosmologist like Wilczek, but to relate to the unknowable Other in some honourable fashion, knowing that in the end all such relations and assessments of sacredness are absurdly inadequate and futile. That’s to say that religious myth makes the best of our ludicrous existential predicament.

Further blurring the line between cosmic beauty and monstrosity, there’s a tragic aspect of beauty that depends on precisely those features of nature that are lamentable such as the finiteness of material objects and the universe’s wanton immensity. Without the transience of phenomena or the gross mismatch in size between any particular thing and the background universe, the aesthetically-assessed item would lack the fragility that pleases an interpreter by making her pity it and be nourished by fantasies in which she saves and preserves that which she assesses. A flower is a classic example of something that’s perceived as beautiful in view of a greater tragedy: the fragility of its petals, the curve of its stem as the flower bows before its inevitable end thanks to natural forces like gravity, the scent that can only be remembered because it’s gone almost as soon as it’s produced. Here beauty seems preconditioned by a prevailing ugliness. This isn’t just the familiar point about the binary divisions between human concepts. The presumed beauty of heaven would make sense only in relation to the ugliness of hell, but the latter wouldn’t exactly give rise to the former. In the case of real beauty, the beautiful thing stirs the emotions because beauty is most powerful when the pleasure is a prelude to pathos: a beautiful form encapsulates the universal and tragically doomed struggle against the nature of reality itself which entails the inexorability of everything’s demise. What’s beautiful is the idiosyncratic way in which something vainly exercises its limited capacities, giving off its scent or presenting its intricate petals if it’s a flower, flapping its wings or cocking its hollow-boned neck if it’s a bird, or even showering the cosmos with its mighty light rays if it’s a star that’s nevertheless made puny and pathetically small in relation to Time.

This ambiguity emerges in the Gnostic interpretation of that which classical Platonists prized, namely the lawfulness of the cosmos. As Hans Jonas pointed out in The Gnostic Religion, the formal beauty of the geometric regularities of nature that gave rise to natural laws was interpreted by dour Gnostics as a sign of the menacing instruments with which natural forces hold us prisoner. Just as a jail cell should be constructed by sturdy materials to isolate the prisoner and prevent her escape, so too the particularity of natural forms imprisons all of us as well as distracting and alienating us. The cold beauty of natural laws looks like just a means of subduing the sentient creatures trapped within the realm of material forms. Now, Gnostics practically were Platonists, albeit bitter ones as Plotinus pointed out. Both Plato and the Gnostic condemned the embodied aspect of nature in relation to a transcendent and ineffable Good, although the Gnostic went further in vilifying the demiurge. But the main difference is in their existential leaps of faith. The Platonist sees beauty everywhere because she loves herself and she presupposes anthropocentrism as she projects her vitality onto the world at large, such as by reifying mathematical models. She trusts the validity of her inner life as a basis for comprehending and potentially overcoming the outer world. Whether she’s a theist or a humanist, Mind for her is prior to undead Matter. By contrast, the Gnostic impulse is to accentuate the world’s horrors to preserve our sense of alienation from it, thus testing the will so that heroic individuals might be all the more honoured. She’s inspired by the twofold nature of tragedy, by the foregrounding of beauty that’s necessarily juxtaposed by an oppressive, ultimately overwhelming background of monstrosity. For the Gnostic, there is a greater good but it transcends anything we can imagine, so that the all-consuming mission is to resist the cosmos that pales in comparison to the true deity.

Both Platonists and Gnostics are supernaturalists, so their ideologies are anachronistic in contemporary hypermodernity. Cosmicists line up with Gnostics except that the former deny there’s any metaphysical basis for liberation from nature’s horrors. Still, there’s a common subversive stance that’s opposed to the Platonist’s conservative trust in the greatness of human reason. For the cosmicist, that which transcends reason isn’t metaphysically supernatural or mystical; it’s merely another part of the one sprawling universe so that our ignorance is a sign not of reality’s greatness but of our puniness. The horror is that we needn’t wait until some mythical Judgment Day before we’re humiliated by being made servants to the erstwhile absent God. Nature itself which entirely surrounds us already subverts our every inspiration, revelation, or joy just by having an inhuman, monstrous scope so that we must in the end indeed retreat to hypermodern subjectivism, solipsistic multiculturalism and other sorts of decadence. The point is as David Hume showed, that we can’t rationally justify the trust we place even in our tools that have proven themselves reliable. Reliability and the whole pragmatic overlay on experience, of what Heidegger called the ready-to-hand in which anything familiar can be perceived as a potential tool or practical good, become illusions in the wholly godless big picture. Something is reliable until it’s not, because the world changes without concern for what we find useful. The search for truth-as-usefulness-or-empowerment is a fool's errand because in the end our entire species will be overpowered by a universe we’ll likely never fully understand, in which case in pragmatic retrospect no one will have ever uttered a single true statement; truth will have been a trick of limited perspective. The rationalist’s and pragmatist’s leaps of faith, then, aren’t aesthetically compelling because they rest on incoherent ideologies.

In the meantime, the cosmicist’s interpretation of nature as a haunted house, as a place in which horror should be the default reaction even to a beautiful foreground is least liable to embarrass us in the long run. The cosmicist trusts that the sublime unknown won’t vindicate our vain or petty preoccupations. What’s sacred to her is the meaningfulness of defying so outrageous a foe as an unappeasable, mostly lifeless universe. The darker and colder the background, the more stunning the candle’s fleeting light that burns in our will to create a world to replace the manifestly disgusting wilderness.

Do we live and die inside a monster?

Finally, there’s the sense in which a monstrous thing is comparable to a “fabulous monster.” Is the universe monstrous, then, because it’s literally a monster? The point about fabulous monsters is that they’re incredible, so that a traveller who thought he saw one could resort only to a tall tale of how he didn’t just glimpse a whale but a kraken, or how the tall person who crossed his path was actually a Cyclops or a Minotaur. The enormous size and other deviant features make for a monster’s fantastic appearance and behaviour, and we’ve already seen that nature as a whole has those same features. We still tell legendary tales of monsters, since aliens and UFOs have replaced the classical monsters in the public’s imagination. Most people don’t take such stories seriously because somehow the monsters always elude capture. The monstrous universe is likewise elusive because its freakishness hides in plain sight. The universe is so immense that no one can hope to see more than a minuscule fraction of it, so that we’re easily fooled by the illusion that nothing’s amiss, that we’re at home in the center of the heavens in which the stars are gods who smile down on us—rather than the stars being pointless fusion reactors that will exhaust their fuel sources according to a truly monstrous timeframe and deprive the universe of even the illusion of having, as it were, light at the tunnel’s end. Moreover, despite suffering from the world’s indifference to our welfare, we’re again easily fooled because we’re prone to anthropomorphize everything so that we can more easily understand and deal with it, being instinctively social animals. And few people are capable of believing the extent of the universe’s deviation from the norms we take for granted, because few have the stomach or the intellectual wherewithal to formulate the concepts of such grossly undead, impersonal activity that transpires all around us; no one can intuitively grasp the universe’s vastness, and few care to dwell on its cosmicist implications. The universe is, then, like a fabulous monster even to the extent that its monstrosity is shrouded in mystery. 


  1. Interesting article, but u do have to point out that the following passage: "If you step foot in outer space without an arsenal of protective gear, you instantly lose your foot: it freezes into a Popsicle and snaps off," is incorrect. Space is "cold" only in the sense that the cosmic background radiation is of a frequency corresponding to the blackbody radiation of an object at a temperature somewhere around 3 degrees Kelvin, but you have to remember that in space there IS NO OBJECT. Recall that heat can only be transferred via radiation, conduction, or convection. In a vacuum, convection is right out, conduction can't occur, because you're not touching anything, and so radiation is the only way a human can possibly lose heart in space, but at normal body temperatures, you radiate in the infrared, which means heat loss is extremely slow. In fact, you're more likely to burn up inside the solar system than you are to freeze. To be perfectly clear, you would eventually freeze in space, but it would take quite a while.

    1. Sorry for the typos, I wrote this on my phone.

    2. Interesting and informative! I stand corrected on the technical definition of "coldness" and on its relevance to outer space. I'm afraid my knowledge of what would happen to an unprotected person in space was based more on the movies than on science. According to Wikipedia, the key concerns would be "ebullism, hypoxia, hypocapnia, decompression sickness, extreme temperature variations and cellular mutation and destruction from high energy photons and (sub-atomic) particles." So of course my overall point is valid: outer space is lethal to human life, meaning we'd die there within around 90 seconds. But the main problem wouldn't be freezing to death--at least, not right away--so much as the lack of oxygen.

      Still, the question of whether space is cold is a little tricky. Space is the temperature of the background radiation, which is just a little above absolute zero. That's very cold! But your point is that there's little heat transfer in space, so that temperature wouldn't be immediately relevant. That is, we would freeze to death in space, but it would take a long time, contrary to what I said.

      You say we'd burn up in the solar system. This is what happens quite memorably in the movie Sunshine. This movie gets it wrong, though, when it shows someone freezing right away in space while being protected from the sun by a huge heat shield. But I was thinking of outer space in general and thus on average. Most places in outer space aren't so close to stars, right?

      Anyway, thanks for the correction, Ryan. I'll change that sentence in the article.

    3. Space is incredibly lethal on multiple fronts, as you've pointed out. I didn't mean to contradict your overall point at all.

      I just think it's kind of interesting to think about the temperature of space. Most of the time, we think of the temperature of something as basically being a statistical measurement of the amount of molecular motion in the object. In other words, the faster the molecules of an object are vibrating, the higher its temperature.

      To use an analogy, it would kind of be like the frog who is boiled to death so slowly he doesn't even notice it, except in reverse.

    4. Sorry, Eduardo, I deleted your comment by accident. But here’s what you wrote:

      “Wow! I forgot how I got to this article but I bookmarked it because it seemed interesting, and a week later it proves it certainly was. Along the lines of the article, I often try to convey to people when a sociably acceptable opportunity arises that space is not a friendly place. Simply acknowledging that a great part of our evolutionary history has been guided by a force field which we call "gravity" and then trying to imagine earthly life outside of it is difficult. But one of the immediate effects, as you commented, is ebullism. Its presence in the most drastic form without pressurized equipment would literary cause our eyes to explode out of our heads as the rest of the body swell up like an airhead. Still, Ryan brings up a good point and reminder of one the thermodynamic laws we commonly depend on. I haven't considered that until now but I trust it will make an interesting conversation and topic for pondering upon.”

      Yes, this sort of observation should put a dent in the teleological proof of a benevolent God’s existence—as if the fact that we can survive in one miniscule part of the universe provides compelling evidence that we’re designed to be here. Flipping the coin to the other side and appreciating that we would die horribly in 99.9% of the universe should, rather, indicate the opposite point: not only must our existence be accidental, but we’re horrifically outmatched by the scale of nature’s inhumanity.

  2. “A flower is a classic example of something that’s perceived as beautiful in view of a greater tragedy: the fragility of its petals, the curve of its stem as the flower bows before its inevitable end thanks to natural forces like gravity, the scent that can only be remembered because it’s gone almost as soon as it’s produced.”

    Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
    And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

    —Thomas Grey, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard