today I’m looking by way of the sunlight through my window, and the concentrated heat of electric power is soaking into my lower back. how do tiny whirling atoms make a concentrated current that can, sometimes, give off light when run through a thin wire inside a rounded glass circus? why does a lightbulb give off heat and light?
light is something scientists can’t understand. it does not calculate. the universe is made of particles or waves, and light is defiant like a bucking colt, motion and brilliance in a form too fast to catch.
right now scientists think light buys and sells gravity, bending in an equation of physics too thick for words except ‘quantum.’ how do the stars pierce from so far away? how does light manage to outrun its source as the source falls backward, farther away from our eyes? how does it reach the present?
Here is the word from a subatomic physicist: “Everything that has already happened is particles, everything in the future is waves.” Let me twist his meaning. Here it comes. The particles are broken; the waves are translucent, laving, roiling with beauty like sharks. The present is the wave that explodes over my head, flinging the air with particles at the height of its breathless unroll; it is the live water and light that bears from undisclosed sources the freshest news…
— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek
trees eat food with no mass, and somehow it permeates their entire bodies in much the inverse way of humans. for while we walk and have no greenery, we need the light or we die. scientists and explorers stationed in antarctica struggle through the winter months – because the lack of light is profoundly depressing.
even color is only explained by the light, and we don’t understand it. light bounces off of objects, and is broken up into wavelengths our eyes perceive. how many shades are we unable to grasp, how many shades of color that we don’t even know how to look for? and how does the light fragment?
we spin around a fire that gives off light, in much the same way we huddle around campfires and soak in warmth. heat is something we distinguish, perhaps by outside perception, as separate from light. but can moonlight radiate warmth? how much concentration is needed to radiate the plants, to wash the world with color and vitamin d?
fire can create light, but light can also create fires. how is that reconcilable: particle or wave? who wins the guessing game, or is there another player we don’t understand?
if you look at Genesis 1, the first thing created was not the sun, or the stars, or the moon – it was simply light. and maybe, just maybe, if the world was created with speaking, with words, by the ultimate Word, maybe the light was more than an assortment of human-made categories and names. there are hundreds of ways that humans have tried to tame light, with names and quantifications, but poetry hasn’t yet fully defined it.
maybe light is a theme – The Theme – in the Story, because it makes everything else visible. it defines color, highlight, shadow, construction and any sight-based identification of people. the raw power of the sun is too much for us to bear now, unrestrained, but without it, we die – and we die miserably, hungry and alone. after all, our whole chunk of rock spins around a flame.
maybe light is the thing by which time is measured.
neither poetry nor science have been able to quantify it, to put it into fully human terms. we love to assign long words and terms and labels to things, we humans. we love to feel safe, to use things at our own direction. we want to tame all bucking wild colts, and control our own lives. and yet we want to go on spinning around a flaming sphere of combustible gases, because we crave the light. we laugh at it, we wonder what would happen without it, but deep down something turns our faces toward the sun at least once in our lives.
maybe the light is more than a particle-wave mismash. maybe it’s designed to confuse, and be wondrous. it spills everywhere, it tumbles and rolls and breaks: dust and leaves both spin in its grace. it seems to turn the sky to flame, and it makes the air gold while the sky is blue. it is the gift of the present, a side effect of measured time. or maybe it is a scientific metaphor, something bolder than a duality.
I never merited this grace, that when I face upstream I see the light on the water careening towards me, inevitably, freely, down a graded series of terraces like the balanced winged platforms on an infinite, inexhaustible font.
— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek