Seeing colors of light is a blessing. Light is electromagnetic energy vibrating in a specific range of frequencies, but our brain perceives the frequencies as colors.
When your retina receives a particular frequency of electromagnetic energy, it sends a signal to the visual part of the brain, which generates a mental image with luminosity and what we call color. Seeing colors is merely our perception of the various frequencies or wavelengths of light energy.
Every creature with vision can see different intensities of light, but not all can see as many colors as humans can. However, some, such as bees and butterflies, can see colors we can’t see. Human eyes see best in the range of frequencies that our brain interprets as green, but our vision is not as sensitive in the red and blue frequencies. So our brain combines the red, blue, and green frequencies to allow us to see about ten million color variations.
Consider how much of our world is green. Green is very soothing compared to reds or blues, but it would be dull and boring if we could see nothing but green. Seeing colors can change our mood, causing us to become relaxed or excited. Colors can convey a message or bring back memories. Different colors appeal differently to various people.
The color of our eyes, hair, or skin is part of what makes each person unique and part of God’s human tapestry. Therefore, we should thank God for the amazingly complex physical laws and biological properties that bring color into the world for us to enjoy.
One of the most interesting stories in the history of science is ether and the nature of light. Scientists devised the theory of ether to explain the actions of light.
For many years, scientists thought of light as a wave. The reason was that light did wave-like things. It could experience interference when two out-of-phase light waves canceled each other. Light could refract and diffract, which are things waves can do.
The problem was that light also did things that only particles could do. For example, light could knock electrons out of certain materials causing what is known as the photoelectric effect. That means that light has mass. Waves don’t have mass. The problem became more complex when considering how light from the Sun reaches the Earth. Waves can’t go through a vacuum, and yet light gets here from the Sun.
To resolve this issue, scientists proposed that space was not a vacuum but was full of something called ether. They thought ether must be the substance that was being waved so light could travel through it. In 1887, two scientists, Albert Michelson and Edward Morely, built a device that could measure the speed of light. Their actual purpose was to measure the movement of the ether by measuring the speed of light as Earth moved relative to the Sun. Their result showed that the speed of light was the same regardless of Earth’s position or motion. This created more questions about ether and the nature of light.
It was up to Albert Einstein to answer those questions. In simple terms, he explained that light is a substance that moves independently of the observer. The speed of light is a universal constant. Today we know that light has both wave and particle properties and always travels at a constant speed. High school students can duplicate the measuring techniques and see the dual nature of light in the laboratory. Welcome to the wonderful world of relativity.
Ether and the nature of light were no longer so mysterious. Ether did not exist, and it was not necessary. The speed of light is part of virtually every physics equation. It allows us to understand the atomic bomb, measure distances in space, and understand time and the age of the creation. It provides the foundation of quantum theory and even shows up in equations describing thermodynamics and chemistry interactions. Light is two-dimensional, having no thickness in the direction it moves. When light is stopped by a barrier, its energy turns into heat, so the object stopping the light does not gain mass.
Discovering the nature of light is a story of how science works. We can propose a theory and test it with experiments. In that way, we can come to understand things we observe in nature. What science once considered to be factual (like ether) may turn out to be incorrect. The speed of light is a constant in a world that is in continuous change. God’s creation is more strange and wonderful than any of us realize or can imagine.
Every time we get a better view of outer space, a new mystery steps forward. In 2015 a spacecraft called New Horizons went past Pluto and raced into outer space. The computers onboard the spacecraft were programmed to block out all light from known objects in the Milky Way galaxy. You would expect that if no light from stars or galaxies could get into the light measuring devices on New Horizons, it would measure only total and complete darkness. Instead, what New Horizons told us is that outer space is not dark but incredibly brilliant.
Outer space has an amount of light equivalent to the light from all the known galaxies in space! Tod Lauer, a spokesperson for the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory in Tucson, says, “There’s something out there unknown.” The most likely scenario for this unexplained light is that there are still more galaxies and stars or clusters of stars beyond the reach of our telescopes, illuminating the distant clouds of matter.
Astronomers have said that the size of the cosmos is not only larger than we can describe with our known science and mathematics, but it is also larger than we can imagine. David wrote in Psalms 139:7-12, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. … If I say ‘Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you, the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you…”
What is your faith? Some of my atheist friends will say, “I don’t have a faith,” but that isn’t true. The definition of faith given in the Bible is, “…faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). The Greek word used for “substance” in this verse is “hupostasis” which is from two words meaning “stand” and “upon.” It is literally our “foundation.” What is your foundational faith?
Each of us has things in our lives that are fundamental to our existence and that we trust even though we don’t see them. We all have faith in gravity. We don’t sit around worrying about whether gravity will suddenly fail and we will drift off into outer space. There is a vast list of things that we cannot see and yet which are foundational to our existence.
For most of us, our foundational faith has more to do with our intellectual understandings, our values, our morals, and how we make decisions. The book of Hebrews identifies some of those things with scientific accuracy and on which most of us can agree. Verse 3 says, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed … so that what is seen was not made of what was visible.” Whether you are a Christian or an atheist, you can have faith in that part of the verse. However, the middle of that verse says, “…was formed at God’s command…” An atheist would disagree that God had anything to do with it but would still agree that “…what is seen was not made of what was visible.”
That raises an important point. Is faith something that is blind?The answer is clearly “no!!” We have faith in gravity because, for all our lives, gravity has functioned in the same way. We trust gravity and have faith in it because we have seen it working. We cannot directly see that God commanded the formation of the cosmos. Having faith in the cause of the universe requires a different kind of evidence. We cannot directly observe the creation of time, space, matter/energy, and life.
Science gives us interesting examples of faith in something we can’t directly see. For many years, scientists debated whether light was a wave or a particle. Those scientists with faith that light was a wave had evidence for their faith. They proved it by showing destructive interference in light. Two light waves can intersect and cancel each other out, leaving darkness. Waves can cancel each other, but particles cannot. Experiments also show that waves can be polarized, and particles cannot. You can shine a light through certain types of crystals, and the crystals will only allow light vibrating in one plane to pass through. Reflected light turns out to be polarized, as you know if you have a pair of Polaroid sunglasses. There was massive evidence that light is a wave, and 400 years ago, that was the faith of most scientists.
The problem with that faith was that there were things that light could do that waves could not do. Light could shine on certain materials and knock electrons out of those materials. This is called the photoelectric effect, and we all use it in photo-sensors and solar-cells. Waves such as sound waves cannot go through a vacuum because they need something to “wave.” Particles can go through a vacuum. Some scientists had such strong faith that light was a wave they explained how light reaches us from the Sun by saying that space is not a vacuum. They made up a substance they called “aether” which they said filled the universe and which waves could pass through.
Scientists today have faith in the dual nature of light. It is both a wave and a particle, and aether doesn’t exist. The point is that our faith can change when we see new evidence. What is your foundational faith, and how has it changed during the last few years? If you are a Christian, has your faith grown? We’ll talk about that tomorrow.
Bible passages such as 1 Thessalonians 5:23 indicate that humans are both physical and spiritual. We consist of a physical nature (our bodies) and a spiritual nature (our spirit). The physical body makes sense, but how can we understand the spiritual? How can we have two human components of spirit and body?
In quantum mechanics, things like photons (light), electrons, protons, and neutrons are governed by principles that are very different from the familiar physical world. In some experiments, these subatomic particles behave like particles, but they act like waves in other experiments.
In 1924, French physicist Louis de Broglie introduced wave-particle duality. That is the idea that any matter, whatever its size, has an associated wavelength. Photons can knock electrons out of a material in the photoelectric effect used to generate electricity from light energy. That process requires light to have physical properties because only particles can move other particles. In a different experiment, photons show diffraction properties explainable only if photons are waves. Electrons produce the same effects as light, yet we can measure their mass. How can they be both particles and waves?
There is also a principle of complementarity in quantum mechanics. It tells us that the result of an observation is dependent on the focus of the observer. In other words, in experiments when our attention focuses on one variable, this precludes the simultaneous observation of its complement. Wave and particle-related properties are complementary variables. We can’t observe both at the same time.
The Bible presents the notion that body, soul, and spirit are not separate entities, but they are distinct dimensions of a person. Although we are one person, we understand that we have two human components of spirit and body. The presence of these dimensions means that we are capable of dual behavior.
Understanding quantum mechanics allows us to understand this duality. Ranjit Thuraisingham, a research scientist, describes it this way: “The science of quantum objects teaches us why we fail to discern this spiritual dimension in ourselves. In quantum objects, focusing only on one variable precludes the observation of the complementary variable. Thus, the absence of observing the spiritual is related to our focus solely on the material.”
In other words, we struggle with our spiritual nature because of our fixation with the material world in which we live. In Galatians 5:16-26, Paul distinguishes between the actions of the spirit and the flesh (body). The actions of the spirit include love, joy, and patience. The actions of the flesh are immorality, hatred, and envy. As in quantum mechanics, we can’t focus on one without losing sight of the other. When we understand the two human components of spirit and body, it becomes clear why our actions are not what they should be.
The fictional character Superman is supposed to have x-ray vision. That super-ability to see through objects is shown in the comics and movies as something coming out from his eyes. As everyone knows, vision doesn’t come out from our eyes. We see because of the light coming into our eyes.
X-rays are electromagnetic radiation similar to visible light, but at a higher energy level and shorter wavelength. Then why can’t we see x-rays? For one thing, our eyes use a lens to focus light on the retina. X-rays can’t be focused by the lens in our eyes, or even by glass lenses. X-rays are focused by using metal tubes to guide the rays because metal is one thing X-rays can’t penetrate.
However, x-rays can penetrate flesh and destroy the molecules by tearing them apart. Even if the lenses of our eyes could focus x-rays on the retina, the x-rays would destroy the retina. Medical and dental x-rays use low doses for short durations, so they don’t pose a health risk. Your body can easily repair the slight damage that occurs.
Another reason we can’t see x-rays is that we are not normally exposed to them, and that’s good news. On Earth, radioactive minerals and radon gas emit x-rays in small amounts. From space, the Sun, other stars, and black holes emit x-rays, but we are protected by our atmosphere. X-rays from space arrive at the upper part of our atmosphere called the ionosphere, where they are absorbed. If all of the x-rays reached Earth’s surface, they would destroy living things and eventually sterilize the planet. The ionosphere makes life on Earth possible.
We don’t think this is just another coincidence. We believe it’s part of the divine design of this planet. X-ray vision is only for comic-book characters and movies.
It seems that God has built into the natural world all kinds of reminders about the nature of our relationship with Him. We repeatedly talk about how intelligence, order, and design are a natural part of the creation around us. One of the best examples of that is what we call lessons from a prism.
If you take sunlight and shine it on a prism (a solid triangular chunk of glass), the sunlight is broken up into all the colors of the rainbow. Each of those colors has a specific function In living things due to their different energies. Red has the lowest energy of visible light, and violet has the highest. The other colors have energies in between from red to orange to yellow to green to blue to violet. Green has the highest energy of light that makes it through the Earth’s atmosphere to reach us. Plants are green to reflect that highest energy, thus protecting the plants. Higher energies of light are scattered away from the Earth’s surface, making our sky blue.
The parallel to Jesus is astounding. In John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” This idea is repeated over and over. (See John 1:4-5; 1 John 1:5-7.) Like natural light, the “light of the world” is made up of many things – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We see all of those things in the lives of the followers of Jesus. The most energetic of these is love. That is why 1 Corinthians 13 is devoted to describing the unique power of the kind of love Jesus brings to the world. The Greek word used in that passage is “agape,” the most unique form of the five types of love the Greek language describes.
The lessons from a prism do not end with visible light. In the spectrum of physical light, some frequencies are not visible to our eyes. There are ultraviolet, Xrays, and gamma rays, all of which have incredible power beyond that of visible light. In the “light of the world” we have the operation of the Holy Spirit, who has power beyond anything we can imagine. He can make changes in each of us not only now, but also when time has ended.
On the other end of the physical spectrum, we have less energetic forms of light beyond red. These include infrared and all kinds of radio waves. Jesus came to the Earth to bring a special kind of light to all people. The problem with this part of the “light of the world” is that it involves words and the written page. People could and did reject what Jesus taught. Today people not only reject it but misinterpret and misrepresent what Jesus wants us to do. This light is less effective because humans are involved in making it work.
The ultimate future of the cosmos is that all light will be made into one. Second Peter 3:10-13 tells us that the elements will melt with fervent heat, and everything physical will be dissolved. We see confirmation of this in the equation E =mc^2. Peter goes on to say that this will lead to a New Heaven and a New Earth. Revelation chapters 21 and 22 describe some of the properties of this new spiritual existence. Paul had a vision of it in 2 Corinthians 12:3-5 and said that any words to describe it would be unspeakable.
Lessons from a prism remind us that we are the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16). Understanding the magnificence of the spiritual spectrum seen in Christ Jesus gives us the tools to carry that light to those in darkness.
When you open your eyes in the morning, take a minute to thank God that you can see. We should reflect upon how good it is to have light instead of the darkness of night. The properties of light make it unique and special.
I am keenly aware of my gift of sight because of a long association with Glynn Langston, who is blind and manages our outreach to the visually impaired. In my lectures, I frequently refer to Edwin Abbott’s book Flatland to help people understand dimensions and how the spiritual is different from the physical. Glynn was born blind, so he is unable to visualize the concept of a sphere crossing a plane and leaving the outline of a circle. He has been kind about it, but my wife once said to me, “How do you expect a blind man to visualize anything!” Even those of us who can see have trouble understanding the properties of light beyond what meets the eye. Radio waves, gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet rays, and infra-red rays are all light!
The properties of light make it difficult to comprehend. The most general definition of light is that it is the energy released when a charge changes momentum. The bundle of energy released is called a photon, and the amount of change in momentum determines the energy of the released light. Even in the visible spectrum for humans, the different colors we see are determined by how much energy the light has. Violet has much more energy than red. Ultraviolet has more energy than violet. X-rays and gamma rays have even more energy, but they are still light. Infrared, and radio waves have lower energies than red. That is why infrared warms you and ultraviolet gives you a sunburn. It is also why radio waves can pass through the walls of your home without causing damage and gamma rays can also pass through things, but they will do significant damage.
In the creation process, there had to be special accommodations for the properties of light coming to Earth from the Sun and from outer space. The ozone layer had to be in place to absorb ultraviolet and avoid damage to life. The eyes of every living thing that uses some form of sight had to be designed to function in the part of the spectrum that fit its diet. Rattlesnakes, for example, have specialized sight organs to see in the infrared. Because they eat rodents whose bodies give off radiation in the infrared, a rattlesnake can see its prey on the darkest night. Nearly every insect sees some part of the spectrum other than the colors visible to humans. That is how a mosquito finds you and how insects navigate at night.
Not every star in the sky gives off the properties of light that are needed for life to exist. Some stars radiate in the X-ray part of the spectrum, and others radiate energies too low to be useful to life. Even our trees and shrubs require light in the green part of the visible spectrum to know when to shed their leaves in preparation for winter. In Job 38-41, God spoke to Job to show His wisdom and design and convince Job of his ignorance. Many of the designs God pointed to are connected to light. “Where is the way where light dwells, and where is the location of darkness?” (38:19) “By what process is light parted which scatters the east wind upon the earth?” (38:24) “How does the eagle seek the prey and see that which is afar off?” (39:29)
What is the best animal eye? Engineers at the University of Illinois have been researching that question. They have now built the world’s best camera by copying that animal. Their new camera could help military drones see camouflaged or shadowed targets. Their discovery also will allow surgeons to perform many kinds of operations more accurately. They have learned all this from the animal which possesses the best eye known to science. The best animal eye belongs to a small creature known as the mantis shrimp. Here are some of the ways the mantis shrimp’s eyes are superior to all others:
The mantis shrimp eye can sense polarized light which has waves that undulate in one plane. Light reflecting off of a surface is always polarized. This ability allows the mantis shrimp to see objects that would otherwise be invisible because of blending into the background.
A mantis shrimp’s eyes are constructed so that each pixel has a rhabdom which is a rodlike structure made of light receptors. The rhabdoms have threadlike structures called microvilli alternately stacked at right angles. That means the shrimp has cells in the two hemispheres of the eye which are tilted 45 degrees to each other allowing their eyes to detect four polarization directions.
The eye of the mantis shrimp can detect an extensive range of light intensities of light to dark known as the dynamic range. This means that they can see clearly even when there is a very bright area next to a very dark area.
The mantis shrimp is the only animal that can sense a full spectrum of colors and can see the polarization of each color. That means that when there is a complicated background, the animal can still get a clear image.
Electrical and computer engineer Victor Gruev and his research team have already made a camera based on the best animal eye. It has a dynamic range which is about 10,000 times higher than today’s commercial cameras. Gruev and the team are working on a commercial version of their camera. Produced in bulk quantities the improved sensors would cost only $10 each.
How is it possible for us to see through objects (like air, water, and windows) and not through others (like wood, steel, and window blinds)?
Light is a form of electromagnetic wave energy oscillating in a particular frequency range and energy level. There are many more frequencies (and energy levels) in the spectrum of electromagnetic waves. X-rays are electromagnetic waves at a higher frequency than light. Radio waves from cell phones, radio, and Bluetooth devices are also electromagnetic waves at a lower frequency than light. We can’t see the waves that are above or below light frequencies because our eyes were not designed to see them.
We say that an object is opaque if we can’t see through it and transparent when we can see through it. When some light passes through an object, we say that it is translucent. Wood is opaque to visible-light frequencies, but it is transparent to electromagnetic waves in other frequency ranges. For that reason, we can listen to the radio or use our cell phones or wi-fi inside our houses. Our bodies are partially transparent to X-rays. That allows doctors to use X-rays to check for broken bones.
If our eyes were sensitive to radio waves and not light frequencies, we would be able to see through most solid objects. Then we would not only lose our car keys, but we would also lose our car–and our house too! The things we need to see would be invisible, and all of the electromagnetic waves around us would fill our vision with confusion.
Electromagnetic waves of different frequencies can pass through some materials but not others because of their wavelengths and the energy levels of the electrons in the atoms of the materials. So X-rays can pass through skin and muscle better than through bones. Radio waves can pass through wood, but not through steel. Light can pass through clear glass, but not wood or steel or cookie dough.