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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Now Let There Be Light

Last week I was explaining the mechanics of a camera to my young nephew. Like any other 9-year old, he asks too many questions. “Why do we need films for taking pictures?” “What is the film made of?” “Where is the picture stored?” “What is an aperture?” “Why do we need an aperture?” “Where is the processing of the film done?”

I was wading myself quite successfully through his intricate web of questions until this googly flummoxed me completely: “What is light?” Thinking that I am a photographer and this should be easy to explain, I started by re-visiting my high school concepts, but failed miserably in explaining the chief characteristics of light. I was aware of the endless debate in the scientific community of light being a particle and a wave depending on the experiment “you” are performing.

“Beats me!” said the young chap.
“Of course” I said.

Therefore, I hit the seminal book on Physics called “The Dancing Wu Li Masters” by Gary Zukav. This book is meant for a bloke like me who does not know his elbow from his ass when it comes to physics (and most other things!). This book took me through an interesting array of experiments conducted by scientists in the early parts of the 20th century to determine the chief characteristics of light. The 1923 experiment conducted by Arthur Compton that caused light to manifest both wave-like properties and particle-like properties revealed this conceptual paradox. In his experiment, Compton fired x-rays (which everybody knows are waves) at electrons. The consequence of this firing was the deflection of the x-ray from the moment it hit the electron, signifying that the x-ray was behaving like particle! Compton measured the loss in energy of the x-ray by calculating the frequency of the x-ray before and after hitting the electron. But hold it right there! I thought only waves have frequencies and not particles! If that be not true, then you and I too have a frequency! In the all-too-familiar double-slit experiment, where light has been touted to behave like wave, I was concerned by now as to how to explain all this to a 9-year old!

To compound the situation, the author went on to delve into the realms of philosophy. To quote him,

“Wave-like behavior and particle-like behavior are properties of interactions

My eyes went wide open when the implication of this statement hit me! Without our interaction, light does not exist! Conversely, without light, or, by implication, anything else to interact with, we do not exist!

These experiments and the observations of the scientists conducting the experiments seem more like sounds bytes of a mystic rather than that of a scientist’s doctoral thesis. Following is an extract from the book to give you a flavor of what I was dealing with:

“‘We are not sure,’ they tell us, ‘but we have accumulated evidence which indicates that the key to understanding the universe is you’”

The moot point here is that the common denominator in all this debate is “I” that goes through all the experiences. So does that mean that what we experience is not external reality, but our interaction with it?

I am sure when He created Man, He didn’t say “Let there be light”. He must’ve heaved a sigh of relief and said “Now let there be light”

I decided to wait for my nephew to grow old to understand all this. In the meantime, I bought him a generous pack of chocolates.