Friday, October 21, 2005

Light From the Rosary (Part 1)

Light from the Rosary: Chestertonian Observations In the Luminous Year
John Paul II and the Philosopher's Stone

One of the amazing talents which Gilbert Keith Chesterton demonstrated throughout his writing was the ability to see ordinary things in a different way:

"The object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing." [G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, 6]

It is a skill which is most important for a scientist; indeed, for any of us poor blind ones who would approach Jesus to ask "Lord, that I may see." (Mk 10:51) It is very interesting that in this year of the Lord 2003 we now have something new to see – something which ought to be looked at with a very Chestertonian and scientific and Catholic view. I refer to the new Luminous Mysteries proposed by Pope John Paul II.

Jesus, the Light of the World
In John 8:12 we read that Jesus said "I am the light of the world." But, if Jesus is "light" does that mean He has a wavelength and travels at some 186,000 miles per second? Not quite – but He invented light itself, and so knowing about the light of physics should help us know Him too.
Another thing: does this light of the "world" pertain only to this planet Earth? Does that mean if we ever colonize the Moon and Mars and other places, we would need to have more light there – or perhaps an additional Savior? No, that is just a flaw arising from translation: the Greek word would be better left untranslated as "cosmos" which means the entire ordered creation.
Jesus of course explained a little of this, as He said "He that followeth Me walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life." (Jn 8:12; cf. Ps 35:10) But now we have an even harder mixed metaphor: if He is not talking about physics when He mentions "light", is He talking about biology when He mentions "life"? Again, not quite – but He invented life itself, with its cells and DNA and proteins.

Now, this essay is about the new Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary but John Paul II also calls them the "Mysteries of Light" – and light deserves some examination in order that we can properly understand it. It is simply that, as Chesterton pointed out in a marvellous context, "I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done."

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, "Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good – " At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark. [G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, CW1:46]

Now, brothers, while we have the light, (See Jn 12:35) let us ponder the value and the philosophy of light.

The height of scientific poetry is the report in Genesis that God created light first. For light in its definition sets forth the great axes, or measuring rods, upon which the universe is constructed.
We may never know what light really is, nor time, nor space, but since light has a speed (called "c" in physics, and roughly 186,000 miles per second – a speed which Einstein argued was universally absolute and fixed) and a speed is a measure of distance travelled per unit of time – then for light to be, both space (the domain of distance) and time must also exist. In Einstein's famous equation (E = mc^2), this speed provides the relation between energy (E) and mass (m).
Light is a form of energy, and for visible light, the relative amount of energy can be detected by the human eye – it is called "color." Blue has a higher energy than green, which is higher than red.
Light has a strange dual nature; sometimes it seems to be a "wave" – because physicists measure its frequency or wavelength; sometimes it seems to be a "particle" – because physicists speak of the quantum of light called a "photon" which can move as if it were something with a body – like a little ball.
Light carries information – and can carry it across incredibly vast distances. The nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is about 4.3 light years away, or 25 trillion miles. One of the nearer galaxies, the famous Andromeda Nebula, is about 2.2 million light years away, or only 13,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles. And this vast collection of billions of stars can be seen with the naked eye! To the scientist, far more information can be acquired, for a device as simple as a triangle of glass (a prism) can "split up" the colors of light and reveal amazing characteristics about its origin. But one need not plunge into such complexities or astronomical distances: what you are reading at this very moment is information carried by light across only a dozen or so inches from the printed page to your eyes!

The Photon

According to the quantum theory of radiation, the photon is the elementary quantity, or quantum, of radiant energy. It is regarded as a discrete quantity having a momentum equal to hn/c, where h is Planck's constant, n is the frequency of the radiation, and c is the speed of light in a vacuum. The photon is never at rest, has no electric charge and no magnetic moment, but does have a spin moment. The energy of a photon (the unit quantum of energy) is equal to hn. Photons are generated in collisions between nuclei or electrons and in any other process in which an electrically charged particle changes its momentum. Conversely photons can be absorbed (i.e. annihilated) by any charged particle. [CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics F-108,109]

Light, considered as its quantum the photon, might be called the "smallest" thing and thus could be considered the most humble. Yet light is also the "fastest" thing, and thus might be considered the closest approach of the material world to infinity. The speed of light is a speed limit – a line which is drawn past which nothing can go. [G. K. Chesterton: "Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere." Illustrated London News May 5, 1928 CW 34:518]
The photon carries momentum, and can be absorbed. This suggests that it can have an effect on things which are not themselves photons. Although it can be absorbed by a charged particle (which thus changes that particle's momentum), the photon never decays unlike many other subatomic particles. Thus its stability also might suggest infinity.
A photon is never at rest. This might be a poetical expression straight out of metaphysics, for the photon in motion represents God Who is always in act (there is no potency in God).
If the photon, the unit of light, somehow provides a poetic suggestion of God, then some more exploration will illuminate those words in the Nicaean Creed about "God from God, light from light." Indeed, there really is something in the physical world which can truly be called "light from light." It is called luminescence.

to be continued...


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