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The Sunlight by Which We See Is Ancient

October 22, 2017 8 Comments

I was meditating on time today, precipitated by some things I have recently learned about the light of the Sun that reaches 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 farther still at the Andromeda galaxy, I am seeing a 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 its surface not as it is now, but as it was more than 8 minutes ago.

Yesterday, I learned 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 its core.

Emerging from the Sun’s core as the result of nuclear fusion, a photon of light enters the radiative zone. The plasma in that zone creates quite a maze for the photon to get through; 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.

Thus, the sunlight we currently bask in is much more than 8 minutes old; it’s actually 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 Earth right now, he would not see us as we are today but as we were in the 15th century. The light of our “today” will not reach Rigel for 600 years.

What is the present? 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 1417 as he does to those of 2017. 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 today.

The future is even more mysterious, but to God, the future is just as available 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 measure the passage of time and tell what time it is now, is about 100,000 years old.

Does anybody really know what time it is? Only God, only God. Time is very mysterious. It seems that the more we think we know, 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).

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Comments (8)

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  1. Jamie says:

    Msgr. Pope,

    All so fascinating, and astonishing, and miraculous. Whenever I think of space or look up at a night sky I’m reminded of the countless debates with friends, in my teenage years, as to how the solar system came to be. I always led with, “God, and the highest language of mathematics; a language only the Divine can speak.” Some friends would balk that God didn’t create the universe. I would ever so casually ask them, “Really, so No One, or Whatever, just happened to place our planet in the exact, and ONLY location within our solar system, where life could sustain itself, a distance form the sun that if even a mile closer, or further away would make a huge difference. They’d just scratch their heads. I always hoped that stuck with them.

  2. Mark Redman says:

    Since God is not subject to space and time, the saving work of Jesus on the Cross was efficacious for all the souls whoever did or ever will exist. This once and for all sacrifice is re-presented at every Mass , from the rising of the sun to its setting.
    Only Jesus was able to do this. .
    What an awesome plan.

  3. James Bond says:

    I am reminded of that old Hymn, “How Great Thou Are”.

  4. Richard Connell says:

    I had trouble understanding the simple sense of the Psalm fragment. Here is the Knox translation of the same fragment: “All my acts thy eyes have seen, all are set down already in thy record; my days were numbered before ever they came to be. 17 A riddle, O my God, thy dealings with me, so vast their scope! 18 As well count the sand, as try to fathom them; and, were that skill mine, thy own being still confronts me.”

    What are the mental gymnastics by which a YEC, Young Earth Creationist, deals with claims such as these, in this article? And if he says the claims are false, how does he explain why hydrogen and atom bombs explode in accord with the claims in this article? Incidentally, as some readers may not be aware, Catholics are permitted to be YECs, but not obliged to be so. That is my understanding. Myself, I have sympathy for the YEC, though not for the devil, as I find his, the YEC’s, naivete appealing. Unfortunately, believing that the earth is six or seven or whatever thousand years old does not result in the elimination of nuclear weapons from the earth.

    As a metaphor, the light of the sun corresponds to exterior acts and the brightness of the sun corresponds to interior acts, which are properly called operations. This, St. Thomas Aquinas taught me.

  5. Alle says:

    Msgr. Pope,
    Thank you for exercising that beloved tissue God placed between our ears:)

    As “God dwells in unapproachable Light…”:
    Would that be why he spoke “Light Be” on Day One of Creation,
    before he even made the sun, moon and stars?

  6. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    There is no night time or dark side on the sun either so a calendar would be useless.

  7. Cresta Archuletta says:

    Msgr Pope,

    This is such a timely post for me because I’m reading “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” by Neil Degrasse Tyson. For me, the studies of the cosmos cannot be separated from God. As I’m certain you know, cosmos/kosmos means order or world. In reflecting on this post, I understand that order does not mean sequence, but is rather the space in which we exist. That order, space, black matter, sun, moon, and stars are God. It can make one feel small, but the miracle of the light that shines on us from the far reaches of the universe restores the notion that no matter how small we are how far away, God will find us.

  8. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Something interesting about the ancient nature of the sun has recently been revealed through research.
    I read this a bit of time ago but found that “water exist before sun” was entered, in the search engine, I got the most effectively varied results.
    I chose https://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2014/0928/Which-came-first-Earth-s-water-or-the-sun where it first states that water existed well before the sun or solid matter. Then the sun, then the solid matter, which is typical of all reports on these latest research results.
    In Genesis 1:1&2 “1 In the beginning God created heaven and earth.
    2 Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, with a divine wind sweeping over the waters.” Some translations say “water” instead of “deep” so, there was water but also darkness so, no sun.
    Then Genesis 1:3 God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.
    4 God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness.
    5 God called light ‘day’, and darkness he called ‘night’. Evening came and morning came: the first day.
    So the sun was next, as the most recent update of scientific knowledge goes.
    Then Genesis 1:6 God said, ‘Let there be a vault through the middle of the waters to divide the waters in two.’ And so it was.

    7 God made the vault, and it divided the waters under the vault from the waters above the vault.
    8 God called the vault ‘heaven’. Evening came and morning came: the second day.
    9 God said, ‘Let the waters under heaven come together into a single mass, and let dry land appear.’ And so it was.
    10 God called the dry land ‘earth’ and the mass of waters ‘seas’, and God saw that it was good.
    Lines up nicely, and finally, with what scripture has reported for thousands of years.

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