TO CELEBRATE MY TWENTY-FIRST BIRTHDAY, I hitchhiked in the spring down from my home in Maryland to the Florida Keys, by-passing central Florida where I was actually born. The edge of the Everglades passed by as I headed down U.S. 1 below Homestead. I crossed the causeway and then the highway bridge over Blackwater Sound, coming onto Key Largo. The soothing greens and subdued browns of the marsh and wetlands ended abruptly. It was like coming into a house of light. The sun burned overhead in an empty sky. The crushed white coral of the shoulders and side roads and flat open spaces gleamed with light that soaked into the landscape and radiated out again. I eventually found my way to the shade and dappling of the palm trees and mangrove swamps, but light itself became a theme of my trip, climaxing in a trip down to Key West to watch the setting sun turn the sea and the sky golden.
LIGHT IS SO LITERALLY UBIQUITOUS THAT WE FAIL EASILY TO RECOGNIZE and appreciate its extraordinariness. Dawn breaks and brightens the horizon, skies and landscapes change hue and shade, evening comes and the pinks and oranges coming off the clouds make us sigh with contentment and delight. We don’t actually see the light, we see what the light does. And what created light does borders on the miraculous.
Light is a massless “particle”—a photon—that propagates as a wave. This wave-particle duality (an aspect also of all electromagnetic radiation, as well as electrons and other elementary particles) is one of the unresolved paradoxes of physical reality. We do not know precisely what light is. The speed of light—in space about 186, 000 miles/sec—is absolute and unchanging, the constant point of reference in a universe of ceaseless motion. Nothing within the universe can exceed the speed of light. Visible light—the light by which we perceive and know the world around us—is a minute sliver of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. What we “see” is just a bare fraction of what is really there. Seeing itself is a complex set of relations and interactions between electromagnetic radiation, matter, eye, and brain. We do not see light itself; it isn’t really “visible” light, it’s light-that-makes-things-visible.
CREATED LIGHT, THE LIGHT OF THE NATURAL WORLD, came into existence with the “explosion” of the Big Bang singularity—the point of infinite density, temperature, and pressure which demarcates the boundary between the natural and the supernatural. It would be 400 thousand years before this resembled anything like the flash-bang of popular imagination and illustration. It took that long for the universe to cool enough for electromagnetic photons, including those in the visible range, to “decouple” from the elementary particles of matter and stream out unimpeded through space. This moment created the afterglow from the dawn of creation called the Cosmic Microwave Background.
THE DAWN OF TIME SEEMS TO HAPPEN ALL OVER AGAIN amidst the buttes and sandstone monoliths in Monument Valley, Arizona. We spent three days there that summer of my twenty-first year. I rose very early one day to watch the darkness turn to sunrise behind two large buttes called the Mittens. I felt I was watching the dawning of the very first day, as though gazing not just toward a distant horizon but into a distant past, as the rising glow became the ball of a blazing sun, turning the darkened silhouettes of the Mittens into bright day and revealing all around the stark contours of sandstone and strata, and the broken details of desert expanse. As the day goes on the sky becomes a continually changing light show, playing bright and shadow across the landscape, subtly altering hue and highlight of blue sky, brown and red sandstone, and dots and splashes of sparse green foliage. All around me the light of creation, the ocean of photons that has spread out from the singularity, from the beginning, washing over me and making me see within its house of light.
Next Week: A House of Light – Part 2: Uncreated Light