May 8, 2012
I’m finally out of school. I was starting to miss my late night walks down dark country roads, so for the first time in months I made my way down a desolate road at 2 AM. The sky was overcast and there was no sight of the canopy of stars I was hoping to see once again, but I was soon greeted by something else — fireflies!
What majestic creatures. I always tell people that late at night, while you’re sleeping, magic is happening. There are some things which are so beautiful they seem out of place in this world. The poofy clouds in the blue sky, the canopy of stars late at night, the northern lights, and other such wonders seem to be glimpses of what heaven could be like, if such a place exists. Fireflies belong to that same category. They seem like something only a master artist could dream up.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, all of the sudden I started seeing them everywhere around me, blinking, almost like they were trying to tell me something. I made my way into the center of a large field, guided only by the small tinge of moonlight able to make its way through the thick cloud cover. In the distance was a dark silhouette of a tree line and all around me were blinking lights accompanied by the sound of crickets.
What peace. What tranquility. What serenity. There I was, the only one there. Such a beautiful sight yet nobody else was there to see it. Caught up in the cares of this world, they sat in their homes, mulling over the news, studying for finals, or putting their kids to bed. But there I was, noticing a sight nobody else in the world was experiencing. That moment was mine and mine alone.
In a perfect state of peace and tranquility I began thinking about my favorite subject — space-time. We humans primarily live by our sense of sight. It’s by far the most important sensory system we have. I thought about how every moment of our lives is illuminated by a method just like the light of fireflies. Light travels through space in little bursts of energy called photons, just like those small pulses from the fireflies. If you need an analogy, imagine if a dense blanket of tiny microscopic fireflies covered the surface of every object around you and their small individual pulses of light, together, built up the images you see with your eyes.
Fireflies blink so slowly, we’re able to see them turning on and off. We notice when a pulse of light makes its way across the field, lighting up a small area of space around the insect, like a miniature star. But imagine if the blinking happened much more quickly. If one firefly decided to not fire off its light, another nearby one would take its place, and since your eyes lack the resolution to distinguish such small changes in location, you couldn’t tell the the difference. And since your brain isn’t fast enough to process these incoming pulses as they come in, one by one, it would appear continuous and you would subjectively feel as if you were locked in a moment in time, placid and still.
While in Malaysian jungles along the riverbanks the fireflies will blink in unison, in most instances it’s hard to tell when a firefly will give off its pulse of light. Atoms are the same way. Our world is lit up by atoms discharging photons. They go into an excited state, discharge a photon, and go back to a lower energy state. We can only know the probability that an atom will discharge its photon once excited, but we can never be sure exactly when. The surfaces of objects are emitting pulses of light at random times, constantly being excited and discharging photons. Our sensory systems are simply not fast enough nor precise enough to notice this mess of photons emitted from countless vibrating atoms as they give rise to a moment in time.
What do these atoms, these microscopic vibrating fireflies, look like when they’re excited? I’m glad you asked because I’m having a hard time holding this in. My entire summer will be dedicated to calculating the shapes of excited atoms, using numerical methods to calculate what atoms look like in various excited states. It’s just as majestic as fireflies. The shapes of these atoms vary immensely. You may think of atoms as these little balls of protons and neutrons with whizzing electrons orbiting the nucleus like a solar system. No no no, that’s just a simplified approximation. Atoms look more like this.
They change shapes, moving from one energy state to the other as they absorb light from the sun and radiate new light. I’m rather obsessed with the details of that process. No matter how far I dig, there’s more to learn. I oftentimes wonder if everything in nature is infinite in complexity. You can never fully understand something because there’s always more to learn.