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Guest Editorial

Something About Light
by Dan Duda
from the April 2023 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission

“All a musician can do is to get closer to the sources of nature, and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws.”

John Coltrane—Great Jazz Musician

It seems every time we take a deep dive into nature, nature tells us we don’t really have a clue regarding what’s going on. We do understand well enough regarding what’s needed to survive, but when it comes to the big questions we’re left with enigmas and mysteries.

My first encounter with this strangeness involves the nature of light and reality. Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason suggested that when we use our five senses to explore the things around us, we never encounter the “thing in itself.” Back in the 1700’s he recognized the limitations of our perceptive abilities.

We think we see objects, but we don’t. We see light bouncing from these objects. These light vibrations, captured by our eyes, matriculate through our neural system to areas of our brain which makes an interpretation of the world around us. Simply stated, the universe is an invention occurring in our heads. Even though likely stimulated by ‘something’ in the world outside, we never “touch” the reality.

As a side note, this fact works well with the idea of solipsism. Once an individual realizes that rather than perceiving reality, his/her brain is generating a self-contained image – he/she can easily be lead to feeling that, ‘I’m the only one existing - it’s all in my head’.

Back to light – “If light did not exist, you would not be able to gather any visual information about the universe. The entire universe would be completely dark to you.” [ Arvin Ash]. We rarely even think about what light is. We easily accept what we believe to be its nature because it’s so ubiquitous. But when science attempts to dive into the light a universal-sized quake shakes our understanding of everything.

From the discovery of wave particle duality to the way photons interface with other particles, light exists beyond our capacity to comprehend. But there’s an additional fact about light that leaves us in awe about what this universe really is – for light there is no time.

Einstein was the first to discover this mystery. With Relativity he showed that the speed of light is the universal absolute – it always moves at the same speed no matter what. Therefore, as a particle moves relative to light speed spacetime has to adjust. If a particle could reach light speed (spoiler alert, it can’t) then time would stop for that object. “…for photons, no matter how far they travel across the universe, not a single instant of time will tick by even though this light may have existed in time and space for many years or light years. Even though a photon would have been clearly formed by one electron in one location and vanished when absorbed by an electron in another location, the spacetime distance between these two events would be exactly zero. To the photon, it is born and it dies at precisely the same moment.”

Wow! That means that from the photon’s perspective it doesn’t happen to us – we happen to it – all at once. And this raises more intriguing questions: are space and time real, or are they something we make up in our minds? Do objects exist, or again, are they constructs of our thinking processes? Suddenly solipsistic ideas do not sound as far-fetched as they did yesterday.

In the words of Carl Jung “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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