The Mysteries of Light


I was wandering along a shady path on the side of a mountain when I first noticed the pattern. Movement at the edge of my vision had caught my eye. When I turned my head to look straight on, I couldn’t seen anything at first. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. A couple of seconds later, though, I saw the movement again. Lightly swaying leaves, like a fluid print upon a tree’s craggy bark. But these were not real leaves—even though they were perfectly at home at the base of the tree trunk. They were simply shadows. My eyes became transfixed by the gently dancing shapes before my eyes.

It’s common to see playful shadows on the ground or upon a wall. Strangely, however, I’ve never noticed the same imprints on other objects before. Maybe they’ve never caught my eye because most shadows I’ve seen tend to wash over large areas, brushing over objects as well as the backgrounds on which the objects rest. Those shadows read as artwork across a large expanse of uneven canvas. This shadow was different.

Actually, the light was different. The shadows still crept over both the tree I was transfixed upon as well as the ground, leaves, grasses, and twigs around it. The light, though, only found itself whole upon the tree trunk. Everywhere else, it was broken into thousands of tiny shards, blending in with the shadows except to give the background some semblance of definition.

dancing leaf shapes

As I continued my hike, my eyes couldn’t help but to search for another strange instance of light and shadow. With so much dappled shade there had to be another fine specimen. Sure enough, after I’d trudged along for another handful of minutes, I caught another one. Different shapes, different canvas, even—but same playful dance of light and shadow.

At that point I was hooked. I started looking for these funny shadows everywhere, even long after my hike had ended. And I began to reflect upon the ephemeral nature of light: its invisibility, its ability to create form, and its peculiar existence that can only be understood though its absence.

hunting for more

Science teaches us that light is both a particle and a wavelength. Before that sinks in, we’re also taught that we can’t see either the particles or the wavelengths.

I don’t know about you, but that used to cause me an awful lot of forehead wrinkling.

It wasn’t until many years later that I gave up trying to see light. I relented and settled for appreciating its effects. A glare here, a twinkling there, a wash of rainbow painted across the evening sky. I could appreciate its qualities (or, to be precise, the qualities endowed upon all manner of objects by its touch.) Every once in a while, the question comes back to haunt me (what does light look like?) but I got used to the disappointment.

Our eyes will never be able to capture light. We can see its source using the quickest of glances, that white amorphous shape floating in the sky or perhaps emitting from a lightbulb. But try to trace the trajectory between that source and the surface it glints on, and there is nothing to be seen. No lines, wavy or straight or otherwise. Sometimes I think I see particles, until I realize that those are just motes of dust in a room that needs cleaning. Only in my mind’s eye can I imagine the path of light. My real eyes see everything but the light: the sky, the clouds, the trees, the lamp posts, the sidewalks, the milling people…

funny shapes

On the subject of “everything but the light”, it’s funny that I only know that the “everything” exists solely because of light. If I reimagine the scene before me with absolutely no light in its boundaries, I only see nothing. Some would venture to call this a black box, though I’m not really sure myself if one, it’s truly black, and two, if it’s truly a box. What a world that would be.

The introduction of a little light in this scene gives my eyes stimulus to latch onto. A line there, a curve there, even a wiggling, squiggly line that changes shape as time ticks past. As the light intensifies, I gather more information—more lines in different orientations, curves varying in size and curvature, new shapes appearing out of the black, additional waving lines that begin to resemble people in clothes. With enough light, I’m able to notice things like color. And it’s not just the objects that gain color. Even the background reveals its colors, a soft gradient that is in fact made up of even more objects, countless objects receding into the hazy distance.

The way light traces a curve or hugs a surface allows my eyes to trace the contours and recognize what it is I am looking at. The information it reveals is astonishing.

revealing contours

So back to the dancing leaves weaving across the surface of that tree. Like I mentioned earlier, what caught my eye was actually the shadow. Of course this wouldn’t have caught my eye without light in the equation. But would I have noticed the pattern without the shadow? In other words, those spaces in which light is absent?

(To be accurate, maybe I should say: those spaces in which light is in varying degrees of absence. Beautiful, beautiful translucency.)

If a space without light is supposedly like a black box, then I would venture to guess that a space with only light would be a pure white nebula enveloping me from every angle. Once again, just a figure of speech, since I don’t really know what that would be like.

Like how the addition of light gives objects form, I’d imagine that so, too, does the subtraction of light. As the nebula gets dimmer, it’s as if a dense fog is receding around me. Forms start to appear, hazy and indistinct and perhaps broken at first, but slowly coalescing into recognizable objects.

When that dimmed nebula gets broken up, though—that’s when things get really interesting. A new world of information makes itself known. If a line breaks the even surface on which the light is shining, I infer that something is blocking the light some distance away. If the line is crisp, then likely that object is close to the source of light and probably far from me. If the line is thick, the object is of sizable magnitude. If the line tapers at one end, perhaps this object sits on an angled plane, one end closer to me than the other.

And what if another shape comes into view, and it is a different shade than the line? Suddenly transparency comes into the equation. The source of this shadow somehow allows some light to pass through, but not all of it.

A third shape glides in. It comes to a rest when it intersects with the previous shape. The area they share is darker—an area of overlap, no doubt.

If I walk backwards, I’ll eventually collide with those objects. I let them settle before me. Suddenly, I am in the light picture, too. I am a little blob at the corner. As I continue my journey, I become a dark shape creeping over the image until the image itself disappears. I wonder how far back I need to go before I’ll reach the light?

layers of light

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