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Kid Twist

Who should understand this

       …One has said, that time
Is a great river running to eternity.
Methinks ’tis all one water…
                            —Death’s Jest-Book

Mine, alas, is a head very much prone to swimming. My wits are easily staggered. My career in physics ended when I first encountered the phrase “per second per second,” which turns up pretty early in the elementary textbooks. This I initially took to be a misprint, but no. In symbolic logic, my undoing came when the U’s started lying on their sides—ditto. Yet here I am, about to draw from a very advanced physical theory, which I do not understand, conclusions I will not be able to describe, no less to defend, and which, moreover, I will have to appeal to what has been, historically speaking, the faculty of last resort—intuition—to confirm; and I acknowledge the folly of this errand at the outset in order to spare those who know better the trouble of pointing it out.

Still, in my defense, it is worth noting that some incomparably abler heads than mine have very rigorously drawn more exorbitant conclusions about (roughly) the same matters from principles (as we shall see) one-step less apparent. I will return to this in a moment; for now, I observe that the theory of relativity, which holds that time slows for any body as it approaches the speed of light, has a very remarkable consequence, namely, that time altogether stops for anything moving at that speed. Now, this, photons—being light itself, and massless—plainly do, as how could they not; and in so doing (or so I have heard a physicist of really shattering eminence affirm) do not (in his words) experience time; and space neither.

It will naturally be objected that photons cannot really be said to “experience” anything, as my physicist certainly knew, for they are but mindless photons; but it is not their experience that I am interested in. Newton, we know, like Aristotle and some others, set out to establish the necessary existence of the eternal by analyzing the phenomenon of motion back to its unmoving cause, for him, as for some others in this line, God—to prove, that is, the reality of a timeless, spaceless and bodiless principle from the appearance of bodies moving in time through space. Now, this, precisely, is what photons may be said to prove; and to prove it, moreover, without resorting to inference, which is always dubious, or retreating to theology, which is wholly speculative (to use no stronger word), for photons are that principle, and that, by virtue of the very fact of their appearing. Appearance is, after all, their métier, so to speak; in their case, if in no other, esse really is percipi.

It is true that these tidings come to us by way of a theory, but this is no way traverses the immediacy of the appearance in question itself. And besides, humanity has always had a deep intuition that light bore some sort of relation to eternity, though never anything quite like the relation I am supposing it to bear: that is, as its direct experience. Light has rather been taken to be an emission of the divine (Paradiso, passim), a metaphor for its guidance (“Lead, Kindly Light,” etc., etc.), or an agreeable accessory of its abode (Ihr wandelt droben im Licht, et. seq.)—all very well, no doubt, but such paradisal, monitorial or Olympian light, besides somewhat supposititious (or accessible only to the “eye of faith,’ whatever that is), is—at least presently—invisible, which, not only in comparison with our light, but simply qua light, must be counted something of an embarrassment, as far as its luminosity goes.

For our light greets us every time we open our eyes. To be sure, its eternity does not eternize us, as that other light is usually imagined ultimately to do. And—again, to be sure—the light we encounter down here has already been deposed from pure eternality by its sojourn through the viscosity of our terrestrial atmosphere; but even in this defective condition it participates us in eternity. It presents as a principle different from, and indeed alien to, the bodies that it plays upon, for those exist in time and space by virtue of their ineluctable materiality, while light only seems to be situated there because of our own. That light is uttered by matter, as the physicists assure us it is, and absorbed by it, in no way materializes it, for only when and while it has been so uttered is light actually light—for us, that is to say, only when it shines. And besides, it is their liberation from matter, and their beyond-instantaneous alienation from its material limitations, that comprises what we may call the moral dignity of photons. That the cosmos has abroad within it so acosmic a principle is a ground—not of faith merely, or, really at all, for of all things, light is the most immediately and indubitably present to sense—but of knowledge, for its sojourn is a continuous assurance of the soul’s possible escape from its prison, and its return to its native freedom.

Or so I conclude.

It is a modest creed, and yet
Pleasant, if one considers it,
To own that TIME AND SPACE must be,
Like all the rest, a mockery.