Meditation on Light

| By Catherine Crouch

Today's entry expands on the ideas about the connection between science and worship Catherine Crouch offers in the video below, excerpted from the Q Society Room DVD, “The Spirituality of Science.” (The full DVD includes presentations by Francis Collins, Alister McGrath, and Louis Giglio as well as Crouch.)

Praise the Lord!

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.

Full of honor and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures forever.

He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and merciful.

Psalm 111:1-4

I became a scientist because over and over, when I was a child, a teenager, and a college student, I experienced the sheer delight that comes with understanding the amazing physical mechanisms that are at work in our universe. For me, this delight came because the universe is not only understandable, but elegant, with just a few physical principles giving rise to the behavior of atoms, galaxies, and everything in between.

I still remember the culminating moment of my first college physics course in electricity and magnetism. We had started out studying electricity, the prosaic workhorse that powers our lives, and then moved to Einstein’s wonderful discovery that magnetism is simply electricity combined with special relativity. Refrigerator magnets, migrating birds guided by Earth’s magnetic field, lightning, and balloons sticking to the wall with static after rubbing them on my hair—all came from the same underlying principle. I thought it couldn’t get any better.

Then we arrived at Maxwell’s equations. James Clerk Maxwell, a nineteenth-century British physicist, was among the most prominent scientists of his day. Bringing together the work of many others, but adding extraordinary creative insight, he formulated just four mathematical equations representing the physical laws governing electric and magnetic fields. He also realized that these equations indicated the existence of waves made up of these fields. Out of the equations came a value for the speed of these waves, based on numbers that could be measured from electric circuits. Amazingly enough, this value matched the speed of light that had been measured just five years earlier. Light was no more and no less than a pattern of electric and magnetic fields traveling through space.

The exquisite simplicity of the physical laws of the universe was never so evident to me as at that moment. Simple, and yet incredibly fertile—the travel of light through space and matter, governed by these few principles, nonetheless manifests itself in a stunning variety of ways. Light from the sun brings us the warmth and energy needed to sustain life on our planet; we perceive the world around us primarily through images formed by our eyes from the light that reaches us; and we use what we’ve learned about light, both through recent science and through the experimentation of untold generations, to improve our vision, to heal, to communicate, to probe the structure of the molecules and organisms that make up the world around us—and to make beautiful things. And the world around us is filled with beauty that comes from light refracting through drops of water and scattering from grains of dust.

In the years that followed, I learned to draw upon this delight to turn my heart to worship, and to deepen my grasp of God’s greatness. The orderly intelligibility of the Creation points us toward the power and trustworthiness of God. The rich fertility of the Creation points us toward the abundant love and generosity of God. The more we understand, the more we marvel not only at the Creator’s handiwork, but at the one who spoke it into being:

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”
Genesis 1:3-4

As a Ph.D. student, I learned that Maxwell himself was a dedicated Christian. During his time as director of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in England, he arranged for Psalm 111:2 to be carved over the doors of the laboratory (in Latin): Magna opera Domini exquisita in omnes voluntates ejus (“Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.”).

What Maxwell learned, and what I learn as I teach his findings and use them in my scientific work, expands my knowledge of our Father’s greatness. The richness of “Let there be light” keeps growing for me, year after year, every time I labor over the details of how light is emitted in my research. It grows every time I take another group of physics majors through Maxwell’s journey, every time I teach premedical students and biology majors the workings of human vision. ”Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.”


About the Author

Catherine Crouch

Catherine Crouch is associate professor of physics at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and lives in Swarthmore with her husband Andy and their children Timothy and Amy. She earned her Ph.D. in experimental condensed matter physics from Harvard University; at Swarthmore, she teaches both physics majors and nonmajors, mentors undergraduates in research, and is developing an innovative introductory physics course for life science students.