Eyes cannot reach Him but He (Allah) reaches the eyes. And He is the Incomprehensible, the All-Aware. (Al Quran 6:103/104)
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as a lustrous niche, wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a glittering star. It is lit from a blessed tree — an olive — neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would well-nigh glow forth even though fire touched it not. Light upon light! Allah guides to His light whomsoever He will. And Allah sets forth parables to men, and Allah knows all things full well. (Al Quran 24:35/36)
Source: Muslim Sunrise Fall 2008
Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
The Qur’an describes Allah as Manifest as well as Transcendent and Hidden at the same time, in the verse quoted in the beginning of this article. It is in this duality that the relationship of religion and science is to be understood. If Laplace had been right in predicting the future accurately, not only there would have been no Personal God but also no ‘free will’ for mankind. But something beautiful yet commonplace, namely, each
and every ray of light, defies the tall claims of Laplace.
The scientific conflict between particle and wave models of light has permeated the history of science for several centuries. The issue dates back to at least Newton. His careful investigations into the properties of light in the 1660s led to his discovery that white light consists of a mixture of colors. He struggled with a formulation of the nature of light, ultimately asserting in Opticks (1704) that light consists of a stream of ‘corpuscles,’ or particles. The wave model explains certain observed phenomena but the photoelectric phenomena are best explained by ‘corpuscle’ nature of light.
If you have ever held a metal wire over a gas flame, you have borne witness to one of the great secrets of the universe. As the wire gets hotter, it begins to glow, to give off light. And the color of that light changes with temperature. A cooler wire gives off a reddish glow, while the hottest wires shine with a blue-white brilliance. What you are watching, as any high school physics student can tell you, is the transformation of one kind of energy (heat) into another (light). As the wire gets hotter and hotter, it gets brighter. That’s because if there is more heat energy available, more light energy can be given off.
Why does the color of that light change with temperature? Throughout the nineteenth century, that deceptively simple question baffled the best minds of classical physics. As the wire gets hotter and hotter, the atoms within it move more rapidly. Maybe that causes the color (the wavelength) of the light to change? Well, that’s true, but there’s more to it. Every time classical physicists used their understanding of matter and energy to try to predict exactly which wavelengths of light should be given off by a hot wire,
they got it wrong. At high temperatures, those classical predictions were dramatically
wrong. Something didn’t make sense.
Max Planck, a German physicist, found a way to solve the problem. Physicists had always assumed that light, being a wave, could be emitted from an object at any wavelength and in any amount. Planck realized that for this phenomenon the particulate nature as suggested by Newton was the key. He proposed that light could only be released in little packets containing a precise amount of energy. He called these packets or ‘corpuscles’ of Newton as ‘quanta.’ All of a sudden, everything fell into place.
It was known that when some solids were struck by light, they emitted electrons. This phenomenon is called the photoelectric effect. Albert Einstein offered the best explanation of the photoelectric effect in a brilliant paper that eventually won him his Nobel Prize. He seized on the dual nature of light. Light was not only a waveform but is composed of individual quanta later called photons. This understanding of the dual nature of light was needed to explain some of the phenomena that had been observed in the study of light. The wave theory of light did not explain the photoelectric effect but conceptualizing the light to be also particle, beautifully solved this riddle.
Einstein proposed that the energy to eject a single electron from the plate came from a single quantum of light. That’s why a more intense light (more quanta) just ejects more electrons. But the energy in each of those packets, the quantum wallop if you will, is determined by the wavelength, the color, of the light. With one stroke of genius, Einstein had shown that Planck’s quanta were not just theoretical constructs. Light really could behave as if it were made of a stream of particles, today known as photons. This won him the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics. All of this might have been sensible and comforting were it not for the fact that light was already known to behave as if it were a wave! So many experiments already had shown that light could be diffracted, that light had a frequency and a wavelength, that light spread out like a wave on the surface of a pond. Could all those experiments be wrong? No, they were not. All of those experiments were right. Light was both a particle and a wave. It was both a continuous stream and a shower of discrete quantum packets. And that nonsensical result was just the beginning.
Classical physics had prepared everyone to think of physical events as governed by fixed laws, but the quantum revolution quickly destroyed this Newtonian certainty. An object as simple as a mirror can show us why. A household mirror reflects about ninety-five percent of light hitting it. The other five percent passes right through. As long as we think of light as a Wave, a continuous stream of energy, it’s easy to visualize ninety-five percent reflection. But photons are indivisible – each individual photon must either be reflected or pass through the surface of the mirror. That means that for one hundred photons fired at the surface, ninety-five will bounce off but five will pass right through. If we fire a series of one hundred photons at the mirror, can we tell in advance which will be the five that are going to pass through? Absolutely not. All photons of a particular wavelength are identical; there is nothing to distinguish one from the other. If we rig up an experiment in which we fire a single photon at our mirror, we cannot predict in advance what will happen, no matter how precise our knowledge of the system might be. Most of the time, that photon is going to come bouncing off; but one time out of twenty, on average, it’s going to go right through the mirror. There is nothing we can do, not even in principle, to figure out when that one chance in twenty is going to come up. It means that the outcome of each individual experiment is unpredictable in principle.
Any hopes that the strange uncertainty of quantum behavior would be confined to light were quickly destroyed when it became clear that the quantum theory had to be applied to explain the behavior of electrons also. Their behavior in any individual encounter, just like the photon fired at the mirror, cannot be predicted, not even in principle. The photoelectric effect was leading the physics community to quantum mechanics.
Just as the invention of the telescope dramatically broadened exploration ofthe Cosmos, so too the invention of the microscope opened the intricate world of the cell. The analysis of the frequencies of light emitted and absorbed by atoms was a principal impetus for the development of quantum mechanics. What had begun as a tiny loose end, a strange little problem in the relationship between heat and light, now is understood to mean that
nothing is quite the way it had once seemed. The unfolding of quantum mechanics
was, and still is, a drama of high suspense, as Heisenberg himself wrote: “I remember discussions with Bohr (in 1927) which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair, and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park, I repeated to myself again and again the question: ‘Can nature possibly be absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?’”
One hundred years after the discovery of the quantum, we can say that the answer is yes, that is exactly what nature is like. Just because science can explain so many unknowns doesn’t mean that it can explain everything, or that it can vanquish the unknowable.
Read the full article, the Indispensible God Hypothesis, online in the fall, 2008 volume, on page 22 of the PDF file: Muslim Sunrise Fall 2008.
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