Scientists refer to the year 1905 as Albert Einstein's "annus mirabilis"—his year of miracles. While working as a patent clerk, Einstein spent his free time debating physics and working on theories that would end up altering the way we think of the world. All within a few months, he completed a series of papers, the least of which included his theory of special relativity and the renowned equation E=mc². Yet among these better-known contributions was also his most revolutionary contribution. Over a hundred years ago, Einstein submitted a paper that directly challenged the orthodoxy of physics. The paper described his radical insight into the nature of light as a particle.
In 1905, all physicists explained light in the same way. Whether the flame of a candle or the glow of the sun, light was known to be a wave. It was a time-honored, unquestionable fact. For over a century, scientists had grown in their certainty of this, citing experiments that made certain the wave nature of light, while overlooking some of its stranger behaviors. For example, when light strikes certain metals, an electron is lost in the process; but if light were only an electromagnetic wave, this would be impossible. Albert Einstein would not overlook these peculiarities, proposing that light was not only a wave, but consisted of localized particles.
Einstein knew that his theory was radical, even mentioning to friends that the subject matter of his March paper was "very revolutionary." Yet perhaps the most helpful aspect of his theory was the unassuming attitude with which he presented his far-reaching thoughts. He seemed to recognize that there was an unfathomable quality within the dual nature of light, and that understanding light at all was a lofty feat. "What I see in nature," he once noted, "is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility."
Science has of course had many advances since Einstein, though with these advances we seem to have misplaced our acceptance of the unfathomable. Anything unknown often seems just a matter of time until it is understood and explainable. And yet, most of us still experience moments of awe where we are suddenly comfortable again with mystery, or awed even that we should discover this thing in the first place. It seems obvious at these moments that the mind is more than a flux of explainable atoms, if for no other reason than that it recognizes in awe and beauty that there is more to see and know.
One of the things about Christianity that I admire most is its comfort with mystery even in knowing. "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 'For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?'"
The Christian story is about a God who goes out of his way to know and to be known, to offer us his name, to call us by name, to show us he is worth knowing and loving. Jesus came near so that God would be fathomable. And yet how unfathomable is a God who comes near? There is so much to life and mystery that is unplumbed by our own minds, even as it is held in our minds and in minds long before our own. Why do we have these minds? Why this instinct to search and know? How is it that we should know God by name, or know the voice of the Son? And how shall we respond to the kind of God who invites a love of knowing him: "This is what the LORD says, he who made the earth, the LORD who formed it and established it—the LORD is his name: 'Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know'" (Jeremiah 33:2-3).
In 1905, Einstein's departure from the established beliefs about light so disturbed the scientific community that his particle theory of light was not accepted for two decades. His theory was and remains a revolutionary concept. The idea of light being both a wave and a particle is still a strange mystery to grasp. Even so, it is incredible that we should know light enough to marvel at it. And it is altogether unfathomable that the light of all people has come near enough to be known.