Gardner Variety: The philosphy of light
Flip the switch.
If you didn’t catch my column last week, it took a look at the electromagnetic spectrum — or light, as defined by its various wavelengths.
Short recap: light drives human life, at least as we understand it. Not only is light essential to the existence of the great majority of known species on our planet, it provides many of the technological advances humans have come to depend on, including the transfer of data via radio waves or the examination of our inner body at work through x-rays.
Light shapes our perception of reality, naturally, because it allows us to view the outside world. Before the era of electricity — a minute fraction of human existence — we relied on the sun and fire as our primary sources of light.
It isn’t hard to see why many religions, both current and primitive, reference light in a near god-like manner. In Christianity, the earth was void and without form until God said, “Let there be light.” In John 8:12, Jesus says “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
The Koran states, “Allah is the light of the heavens and the Earth.” Buddhist schools and texts that refer to a divine light do so in reference to a cosmic, God-like Buddha. To the ancient Egyptians, the sun represented light, warmth, and growth. Ra, the sun deity, was seen as the ruler of all that he created.
Modern philosophy, however, has struggled to keep up with many of the implications resulting from our new-found understanding of astrophysics.
Consider this. Each time we stop to gaze up at the night sky, the stars we look upon are not really there. They could have changed position in the sky or even died in actuality. This is because we must take into account the time it takes the light from each individual star to reach the earth. If we’re looking at a star that’s 10 light-years away from the earth, we are seeing that star as it was 10 years ago, not as it is in its current state.
In essence, every time we look at the stars, we’re actually peering into the past.
Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity presents us with even more troubling possibilities. Imagine looking to the sky to find a pair of stars brightly shining with identical luminosities at equal distances from the earth. Our perception of reality tells us that there are, in fact, two stars. And why not? When we look up and physically see two stars, our intuition naturally tells us there are two stars.
But sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes it really is only one star.
This results from a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing — an optical illusion on the grandest of scales made possible by a gravitational field’s ability to bend light. One celestial body appearing as two in the night sky is witnessed most often when quasars — enormously bright, high density galaxies — are positioned in such a way that the light they emit is forced to bend around a massive galaxy located in between the quasar and Earth, resulting in the appearance of two separate entities.
Before Einstein’s revelation, even the most hard-nosed and respected of scientists would never have questioned what naturally appears to us as a pair of stars.
Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps there’s more to life than what we initially perceive, even when those perceptions are coupled with rational thought. Perhaps there’s some eternal untapped source of knowledge and beauty, begging to be discovered by those who can overcome the limits of their perceived reality.
It almost sounds like the merging of science and religion, and perhaps it is, as long as we are actively seeking answers and constantly challenging our minds to think beyond our preconceived capabilities.
Then again, maybe none of this even matters. It certainly doesn’t seem to affect our day-to-day lives. But we’ll never know unless we attempt to shine the light for ourselves.
Luckily for us, we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants.