On the Relationship Between Light, Time, and the Mystery of God

blog.10.21I was meditating on time today, precipitated by some mysteries I’ve recently learned about the light of the Sun that reaches this earth.

I have long known that to look up into the night sky is to look far into the past. Looking up at the star Sirius, I am seeing 9 years into the past. Looking over at the star Antares, I am seeing 250 years into the past. And when I look the star Rigel, I am seeing 600 years into the past. Looking further still at the Andromeda galaxy, I am seeing one million years into the past. That is how long it takes the light of these stars and galaxies to reach us! We are not seeing them as they are now, but as they were then. The past, even the distant past, is very present to us.

The light of the sun takes 8.25 minutes to reach us. Thus we see the surface of the sun not as it is now, but as it was more than 8 minutes ago.

But I learned yesterday that the light of the sun is even older than I had thought. A little research on my part revealed this astonishing fact: the photons of light that reach the surface of the sun (and then reach us 8+ minutes later) were actually generated 100,000 years ago in the sun’s core.

Emerging from the sun’s core as the result of nuclear fusion, a photon of light enters the radiative zone (see diagram above). The plasma in that radiative zone is quite a maze for the photon to get through, such a maze that it takes the better part of 100,000 years to make the journey to the convective zone and the photosphere where it finally begins a rapid journey out into the vacuum of space.

Why does it take this long? Imagine being in a large room filled with people, trying to get to the door on the other side the room. But as you try to make your way across the room, person after person strikes up a conversation with you, delaying your progress. It won’t take you 100,000 years to get to the door, but you get the idea.

The diagram above shows the meandering, zigzag motion of a photon as it makes it way through a maze of plasma that detains the photon for up to 100,000 years!

Thus, the sunlight we currently bask in is much more than 8 minutes old; it’s 100,000 years old! The light we see today was made in the sun’s core back during the beginning of the last ice age.

The great mystery of time is on display for us at every moment. The past is present in many ways. And our past is on display and still present as well. If anyone on a planet near Rigel were looking back through a telescope at the earth right now, he would not see us as we are today, he might see Joan of Arc and her contemporaries of the 15th century. The light of our “today” will not reach Rigel for 600 years.

What is the present? That is mysterious as the sum total space of the universe and it depends on where you are. God, who is just as present at Rigel as He is here, has the same access to the images of 1415, as he does to those of 2015. Indeed, He is present at Andromeda just as much as here on earth; and a million years ago is just as accessible to Him as is now.

The future is even more mysterious, but that is just as available to God as is the past.

Do not miss the irony of the fact that the light of the sun (and the reflected light of the moon), by which we set our clocks and calendars to measure time and tell what time it is now, is 100,000 years old.

Does anybody really know what time it is? Only God, only God. Time is very mysterious and the more we think we know, it seems the less we really do.

All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—when I awake, I am still with you (Psalm 139:16-18).

6 Replies to “On the Relationship Between Light, Time, and the Mystery of God”

  1. So when God says in scripture that to Him a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like but a day, it may be more than just a poetic figure of speech. Thanks Msgr. Pope.

  2. Thank you for this Father,

    Yes, time is fascinating; and really, even today, it’s very poorly understood in physics at its most very fundamental level.

    Also, a small technical clarification…
    The electromagnetic energy released in the sun’s thermo-nuclear core takes a million years to reach the outer core, and from there it takes another 100,000 years to reach the radiative surface, called the photosphere, from which it begins its high speed egress into outer space. In addition, the photosphere is not a distinct surface like that of the earth or moon, but rather like that of a cloud, which is (essentially) a high flying patch of fog. The sun is a gas ball of decreasing radial density and the photosphere can be thought to be analogous to the rind of an orange within this ball. The physical properties of the gas in this spherical shell (i.e. the orange rind) changes such that at it’s inner surface, the gas is opaque to light and at its outer surface it is transparent. Hence, this is why we see the sun as a glowing ball, rather than as a diffuse, spherical, glowing cloud. To extend your room analogy, the exit is not a door, but rather a short hallway opening into a parking lot.

    Another indication by nature in support of a creator.

    Love your posts,
    May God bless.

  3. A mystery to be contemplated is time, but in terms of eternity. We live in the now but it eludes us when we seek to hold it still. Not so in eternity, where we will see the Eternal Now face to face. We shall still have before and after, but so yesterday and tomorrow. Nevertheless, God’s universe was made for our contemplation, now as He intends us to see it, not spatial and temporal dissection. For that matter, how could there have been an earth at all one million years ago . . . if the sun is diminishing in mass all the time. Planets would have been drawn into its gravity, no? Burnt up in a second. Oh, well. The chicken came before the egg, period: that’s what the Bible says; that’s what God wants us to see. God has no need to give millions of years (whatever that is?) to produce His creation. ALl of this beauty was made for man and the angels. ANd the angels move the universe.

  4. Father, perhaps you will appreciate the following story related to me by a friend which, although slightly irreverent, sheds some light (heartedness) on the subject.

    A man once asked God, “Lord, is it true that with you a thousand years is like a single second and a single second is like a thousand years?” The Lord replied, “Something like that. Yes.” The man then asked, “And isn’t it also true that with you a million dollars is like a single penny and a single penny is like a million dollars?” And God answered, ” I suppose you could put it that way.” The man went on, “So, may I have a penny?” And the Lord answered, “Sure. Just wait a second while I get it for you.”

  5. As the story goes…

    Holmes and Watson are on a camping trip. In the middle of the night Holmes wakes up and gives Dr. Watson a nudge. “Watson” he says, “look up in the sky and tell me what you see.”

    “I see millions of stars, Holmes,” says Watson.

    “And what do you conclude from that, Watson?”

    Watson thinks for a moment. “Well,” he says, “astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meterologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I see that God is all-powerful and loving as to have created such a grand universe for us. Uh, what does it tell you, Holmes?”

    “Watson, you idiot! Someone has stolen our tent!”

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