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Exploring space…

Space – a word with so many meanings, literal and figurative. I need my space. Is there space in the lounge for the new table? Headspace is essential for psychic growth. Deep space. Newtonian space, Einsteinian space. Space-time. Cyberspace. Virtual space. Space of flows. Space – the final frontier (any Trekkie would recognise this one). So what to expect when your ever-considerate partner surprises you with the gift of a thick, glossy volume entitled Space (by Carole Stott, Robert Dinwiddie, David Hughes and Giles Sparrow, DK Publishers, London, 2010)? With a cover-photograph of a sphere reflecting a sliver of light fading into a penumbra before darkness reigns it can only mean one thing – the Star Trek variety.

Except – there is not much science fiction here; science, yes. Lots of it. So much so that after paging through it, scanning the chapter headings and pausing occasionally to admire a stunning photograph of deep-space phenomena, one feels somewhat overwhelmed by the prospect of attempting to take it all in. What a book. I’m certain that, having worked one’s way through it with some comprehension would qualify you for being the official guide at a museum of astronomy.

Sample this, for instance: It is divided into seven sections – Launchpad Earth, Neighbouring Worlds, Beyond the Belt, A Galaxy of Stars, A Universe of Galaxies, The Outer Limits, and Reference Section, covering more than 350 pages of text and some of the most spectacular space photographs ever published. You will notice that, with every successive section, one moves further away from earth, and the “amount of space”, if there is such a thing, widens and deepens the further away from earth one goes. The effect of this outward movement from our centre, Earth, to the outer reaches of the “known” universe, is to relativise one’s sense of size, so that one ends up being acutely aware of our utter insignificance as individuals in the greater scheme of things. But no matter – I think it was Pascal who observed that we are such puny beings that a rock could crush us, but in thought we encompass the universe.

Each of these sections covers far more than an astronomy-novice could possibly expect. In the first section, Launchpad Earth, there is a fascinating schematic representation of “the scale of the universe”, again following the pattern of increasing scale from immediate space-surroundings to progressively more distant realms. Particularly interesting is the way the schematic depiction provides a measure of the distances involved, using a grid in each spatial context, such as “Earth and Moon”, “The Solar System”, “Our Stellar Neighbourhood”, “The Milky Way” etc to, finally, the “Large-scale Structure”. This grid makes it possible to use a square in every case to indicate the spatial distance covered by what the square stands for in terms of light-years (the distance covered by light in a year, travelling at 1 079 million kph, which amounts to an incomprehensible +-9.5 trillion kilometres).

Just to give you an idea of the distances involved, light travels from the Moon to Earth in just over a second, while the distance between Jupiter and Saturn amounts to about a light-hour, while, in “Our Stellar neighbourhood” (within the Milky Way, our home galaxy), the nearest star (Proxima Centauri) to our own star, the Sun, is 4.24 light-years away. The Milky Way itself – which is but one of billions of galaxies – is approximately 100 000 light-years in diameter, and the grid shows what distance within the Milky Way comprises 5 000 light-years.

By the time the local supercluster of galaxies is reached in the schema, one such grid-block covers 10-million light-years, and with the large-scale cluster one little block represents 100-million light years. The “chains of galaxies” formed by the merging of galaxy-clusters and “superclusters” are said to cover billions of light-years – something that truly instantiates what is known in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant as the “mathematical sublime”, which means that it is impossible to form a coherent “image” of the thing in question because of its overwhelming magnitude, even if one can “understand” it at the level of the intellect. The authors of this mind-blowing book sum this up as follows on the page concerned (p9):

“Illustrating the cosmos at a single scale is impossible – if the Earth-Moon distance were a single centimetre (0.4 inches), the furthest reaches of the Universe would lie at [a distance equivalent to] the edge of the Solar System. The above sequence [therefore] links Earth to the largest structures in the Universe by increasing the scale in each area depicted.”

Keep in mind that, in the last four paragraphs alone I have been discussing TWO pages from the first section in the book, which covers more than 40 pages (most sections are between 50 and 70 pages in length). This should give you an impression of the sheer amount of information and explanation between the covers of Space – one could base an entire course on astronomy on just this one book. In addition to covering humankind’s journey into space (so far), the first main section includes fascinating sub-sections on orbiting Earth, on space stations, spacewalking, and on exploring Earth’s oceans, land, ice and snow from space.

A sub-section in Neighbouring Worlds that would interest most readers is The Moon’s Unseen Face (p. 74-75) – at least those readers who know that the Moon’s surface that we see from Earth is always the same one. The Dark Side of the Moon, as Pink Floyd has it, was a mystery to humans until space flights made it possible to photograph it. It was photographed for the first time by the USSR’s Luna 3 spacecraft on 7 October 1959, and the first humans who set eyes upon it were the crew of Apollo 8 when they circled the Moon in December 1968 – before the 6 Apollo Moon landings between 1969 and 1972 (p. 66-73). The other (dark) side turned out to be more “rugged” than the visible side, featuring one of the biggest craters in our solar system. All the lunar features are explored by means of photographs and other representations aimed at illustrating the “height profile” of its surface.

I could carry on like this for many more pages, especially when it comes to my own special interest in cosmology, dark matter and dark energy, the Big Bang and the possible “end” of the universe (discussed in the section on The Outer Limits). But that will have to wait. Suffice it to say that anyone who shares Kant’s sentiments where he observed that two things filled him with wonder, to wit, the starry heavens above and the moral law within, would find ample occasion in this marvellous book to reaffirm such a conviction.

Just think of this: dark matter and dark energy comprise more than 95% of the mass-energy in the universe; “visible matter” (the things we can see) amounts to a mere 0.5% (p. 318-319). This alone should fill one with wonderment: that the human species, which seems so utterly insignificant in this “effan-ineffable” (sayable AND unsayable) scheme of things, not only has the intellectual capacity to explore the unfathomably enormous and complex astro-physical universe, but simultaneously also possesses the moral capacity to distinguish between right and wrong (even when one does not always act accordingly). It was this capacity, together with the enormity of star-space, that so impressed Kant. So next time one looks up at the Milky Way self-reflectively, perhaps one should show some respect.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 16 May 2014

    Nice article. I’m tempted to mention the student who was startled from a daydream by hearing the tutor say Earth could only last another 5 billion years before it was consumed by our Sun becoming a Red Giant.

    ‘How long, sir?’ the student exclaimed in alarm. ‘Some five billion,’ repeated the tutor.

    ‘Phew!’ exclaimed the student in relief. ‘I thought you said five million.’

  2. Maria Maria 17 May 2014

    It is precisely the Kantian epistemology, combined with Lacan’s Real, that offers the most cogent explanation for humans’ limited capacity to “perceive reality”. Human beings are so arrogant; even with plenty of evidence that animals see things that we don’t, they still assume that what we perceive, admittedly with the aid of technological extensions, is ALL THERE IS. Nothing of the sort, and physics’ ability to pick up, at least, that what we perceive amounts to 0.5% of what is out there in a merely “physical” (or energy-) sense, confirms the very restricted nature of “human” reality. Kant’s Ding an sich, which posits “something”, an “I know not what”, “behind” phenomenal reality, affirms the findings of physics, as does Lacan’s Real, not to be confused with “reality,” the spectrum of what we perceive, or know, in linguistic form. The Real announces itself there, where our theoretical discourses falter, and new metaphors have to be designed to make sense of what our sophisticated apparatus registers as an anomaly, or something unexpected, which does not fit into our theoretical, i.e. discursive, categories.

  3. Policat Policat 19 May 2014

    Maybe missing the magnificence of it all a little but:
    Besides the wondrous discoveries of science especially in the fields of astronomy and cosmology science also has the propensity to humiliate and generate a sense of insecurity within ourselves by devastating us with our insignificance when confronted with these staggering statistics. But the least we can do is to be humbled into respect and appreciation for the minute watery rock we inhabit if we look at the overwhelming size of the cosmos and our spot in it.
    We humans are the top predator on this planet at present and have not only been able to manipulate the elements created by the universe to improve our lifestyles but in the process learnt to reconfigure our environment so that we can better enjoy its comforts. This is a remarkable achievement considering our short tenure on the planet. Our success has been built on the violence and randomness of the nature of the universe and perhaps that is why we are so wired that we cannot stop ruining the planet with our relentless quest for more things physical and ethereal. We should remember however that the earth also does not hold a candle lit specifically for us homo sapiens and will not mourn our passing.
    Makes me think of a by quote Stephen Crane (1899)
    “A Man Said to the Universe”
    “Sir, I exist!”
    “However,” replied the universe,
    “The fact has not created in me
    A sense of obligation.”

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