You have probably noticed the difference. We’ve all shown Saturn to someone, or perhaps have shared a clear view of a bright star cluster with someone who hasn’t seen such a thing before. In these and similar cases, the sheer beauty of the object is the whole point; any impressive facts are secondary. What I’d like to point out about these experiences is the impulse and the ability to share the beauty of the thing with someone else. It’s fun.
Think now about viewing one of those other objects, the ones that make your gut tighten up, that stop your mind for a few seconds until you recover and are able to take it all in — things that you know the facts about but that baffle you a little anyway. Chances are that you’re looking at something a little dim, perhaps a galaxy or a galaxy cluster, or if you’re lucky a quasar. But in each case you’re observing something that is best appreciated when you know how unthinkably far away or immense the thing actually is. You can try to explain the facts about the object to another viewer, but you don’t know if the other person can appreciate the view in the same way that you do. It’s not because what you’re seeing often doesn’t look all that impressive. It’s because you’ve encountered the sublime.
The difference between these two very human reactions is not unique to astronomy. In fact, the different emotional experiences have been explored by luminaries no less daunting than Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. They were both curious about what it is that makes us feel kind of funny about enormous or uncountable things. They came to different conclusions but agreed that sublimity was distinct from mere beauty. What really happens to us when we encounter something awesome in the eyepiece, and why does it feel so different?
Kant decided that among other qualities, beauty is social, that it can be pretty well summed up as something we share with others. Not so with sublimity. The experience of the sublime puts you right up against it, just you and the universe and what at first seems like a bad fit between the two. It’s a solitary experience. Kant explained it like this: faced with something that is just too much, we are halted in our tracks, unable to imagine it, to take it in. But after this initial moment of blockage our faculty of reason comes to the rescue, and we are able to fashion a kind of accommodation between ourselves and our perceptions of what’s out there. It is that brief moment of being blocked and then rescued that produces the exhilaration of the sublime. What for a moment had seemed a kind of defeat has become just the opposite, a moment of awe, and of participation in wonder. It’s what you feel sometimes out on the observing field on a good night. This experience can be communicated to others, but shared only with the universe.