Thursday, May 21, 2009

Column: The Speed of Light

Chris' joke - "What's new?" "c over lambda" is the physics equivalent of why did the chicken cross the road?" (though these "philosophical" versions do much to revive the chicken genre!) A rough translation from geek to (almost) English is "Do you know how to calculate the frequency of electromagnetic radiation?" "Of course, divide the speed of light by the wavelength!" The formula for the conversion is ν = c/λ. The standard symbol for frequency is the Greek letter ν, ("nu", pronounced "new"). What's ν? c/λ!

My physicist friend blogs here (and works at the Vatican Observatory which does not look like the description in the da Vinci Code!).

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 21 May 2009.

Jesus went out, along with His disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way He questioned His disciples, saying to them, “Who do people say that I am?”
— Mk. 8:27

We had a physicist friend to dinner last week. In honor of the occasion, Chris wore his geekiest math t-shirt and practiced his newest physics joke. He greeted our guest with the straight line “What’s new?” To Chris’ utter delight, our visitor came right back with the punch line: “c over lambda!” The joke is all about light and how fast it moves — c is the speed of light.

A couple of days later I walked into Bryn Mawr to run an errand. As the cars whizzed past, I briefly regretted that I had chosen this much slower method of transportation. Everyone else seemed to move at the speed of light by comparison; surely my time could be better spent.

As I walked, it occurred to me that in one sense I was moving at the speed of light. Christ is Light from Light, True God from True God, the fundamental constant in the universe from which the rest flow, and yet He chose to move at this same deliberate pace. No timesaving, miraculous translations. He walked. This was the speed of Light.

So I walked. No longer anxious about how fast I was moving, I opened my eyes to see what Christ might see if He walked these same streets with me, and my ears to hear what questions He might have for me, as He had for those who accompanied Him 2,000 years ago.

Walking makes you aware of what you carry and what you choose to pick up and take home. Needs and wants suddenly must be balanced against their cost, at least in space and weight. How often do I think about the cost of what I want — or those for whom the cost of what they need is more than they can bear? A mistake in direction takes more effort to correct when you walk than when you drive. Walking encourages you to think before you step: am I going in the right direction?

Creation is not once removed when you walk, but under your feet and within reach. So, too, is the trash on the ground and caught in the trees and shrubs. When you slow down and look, even the small bits of trash — the gum wrappers and bits of glass — are glaringly obvious. When I slow down and look at my own life, can I see that which mars what God has created me to be? I find as I walk that I am resolved to pick up some of the litter that is caught around my soul.

Like the disciples who walked with Jesus in Caesarea Philippi, questions dogged my footsteps. But I returned home sure that while Christ intended those walks to be instructive for His disciples, as they were for me, it is not the fundamental reason He took to the roads. He walked because when you are on foot, there is no shield between you and your fellow travelers.

The older woman I have seen so many times heading into town with her walker is no longer a nameless blur as I sail by in my car, someone to whom I might give just a passing thought. Now? I know her name; I know that she is going to the library; I know how much she cherishes the freedom of these walks. Christ walked with us so that He would know our names, our stories and our destinations — and we His.

Sovereign God, ruler of our hearts, You call us to obedience and sustain us in freedom. Keep us true to the way of Your Son, that we may leave behind all that hinders us and, with eyes fixed on Him, walk surely in the path of his kingdom. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. — Opening Prayer for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C


  1. Beautiful. I remember a long time ago when you asked yourself if you could find God in the city as you do in nature. This is what the city means to me -- walking, the opportunity to see a stranger and recognize Christ, the moment to cherish the absolute otherness of more people than I will ever know by name.

    Now I suppose I have to learn to find Christ in the small towns, and perhaps behind the wheel of my car. But I know it can be done -- I once rode to church with a bunch of Indian parishioners who pray the rosary together as they ride, anywhere.

  2. Utter non sequitur:

    I saw this in my Zenit feed:

    Mischief kicked in:
    "an attractive picture of the Pope" (are the others so unattractive?)

    When will we have a Curia wiki? Vatipedia, anyone?

  3. We can and do walk to many places. The advantage of living in a town. Something I did not experience growing up.