Pillars of Creation
Pillars of Creation

One of this blog’s first posts, Indra’s Net and the IGM, described a surprising correspondence between Mahayana Buddhist myth and actual findings in cutting-edge cosmology‐the branch of physics exploring the creation of our universe. The post ended with this question: What happens when metaphors become measurables?

Subsequent posts have also explored the implications of modern science seeming to agree with ancient spirituality. Are these simply poetic interconnections, or might creative intuition deserve the same practical respect we give objective observation in decoding our world?

Today I found a particularly enchanting example of this question:

In Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, God is described as having 10 characteristics. These characteristics are called sefirot—Hebrew for “jewels.” The sefirot are arranged in three vertical pillars, as illustrated in this diagram:


As indicated in the diagram, the three pillars have names: Mercy, Judgment, and Harmony. In creation, these become stations through which God’s generative energy travels as it descends from heaven to Earth. Helping along the miraculous transformation from pure spirit to physical matter, each pillar contributes the quality for which it’s named. The resulting creation is thus balanced and complete: mercy and judgment, harmonized.

The pillars can be thought of as factories, using divine light as their raw material, producing and refining everything we see and touch.

Contemporary cosmology also offers an explanation for how creation occurs, and it also involves factories of sorts—in this case, stars.

Stars are made of highly pressurized clouds of hydrogen gas and galactic dust. As a star forms, its hydrogen atoms collide, fusing into helium. The helium atoms then collide, fusing into carbon and oxygen. A cascade of collisions and fusions continues, as elements combine to form heavier elements, and heavier elements, etc. Eventually the weight and energy of all these chemical elements cause a star to become so pressurized it explodes, blasting the elements it’s created deep into space, where they eventually coalesce into new stars, planets, and people.

In 1745 a Frenchman named Jean-Philippe de Cheseaux discovered a cluster of faraway stars, now called the Eagle Nebula. In 1995 the Hubble Space Telescope photographed a region of the nebula in which densely packed interstellar gas and dust has formed three vertical columns. These columns are particularly fertile star factories. They’re popularly called “Pillars of Creation.” The famous photo is this blog’s featured image.

So… Kabbalah mythologizes three columns of sefirot that process divine light into physical matter, and cosmology discovers three “Pillars of Creation” that birth stars and all the chemical elements they engender.

The question again: What happens when metaphors become measurables?

Add your thoughts
  • July 22, 2009 at 7:59 PM

    you have probably worked with texts of Harold Bloom and John Brockman what brings us to a quiet irony: considering the whole history of eastern-western knowledge, what measure is not a metaphor?

    i’m not a student of kabbalah but when i read in your posts seems to indicate a characteristic related to the quality of these attributes [tree of life] … each instance at [in or on? – i don’t know how to use prepositions of space in a process that does not require that] tree of life is is a latent power (or potential state – Leibniz?) that seems to say that is the upper limit of the metaphor… work in math with the minus infinite and plus infinite … who studies kabbalah seems to study the characteristics of the infinite and measure them with metaphors…

    is rather late and i’m just thinking too much

    • July 23, 2009 at 12:07 PM

      “What measure is not a metaphor?” Exactly!

      So often we mistake the map for the territory, which is why I carefully titled this blog POETIC INTERCONNECTIONS. Descriptions of reality are always interpretations, and thus, in a sense, artistic creations. As such, they fall prey to the same idealism and idolatry as misunderstood art.