In its two decades in space, the telescope has captured an astonishing range of images, from the glowing ring of the Sombrero Galaxy to the ghostly arabesques of the Eagle Nebula. It has also confirmed a number of theoretical phenomena, including dark energy, the mysterious force pushing the universe apart at ever increasing speeds. Historically, discoveries of pure science are slow to reach the mainstream compared with those of the applied sciences, which noisily announce themselves with new medicines and gadgets.
The Hubble has proved an exception, remaking, in a single generation, the popular conception of the universe. It has accomplished this primarily through the aesthetic force of its discoveries, which distill the difficult abstractions of astrophysics into singular expressions of color and light, vindicating Keats’s famous couplet: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Though philosophy has hardly registered it, the Hubble has given us nothing less than an ontological awakening, a forceful reckoning with what is. The telescope compels the mind to contemplate space and time on a scale just shy of the infinite.