Windows of Vision
The remarkable ways creation—God’s and ours—allows us to see what we cannot visually see. /
Windows of Vision
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Cor. 13:12, KJV)
Inside a book my son owns about how things work, there is a picture of a radio telescope. At first blush, the idea of taking astronomical pictures with radio waves seems far-fetched, and yet today this is a standard instrument used to peruse the heavens in search of its secrets.
There are numerous methods of observation afforded by the Creator. Many involve the measurement of some aspect of electromagnetic (EM) radiation. Take, for example, how we can enjoy the beauty of a flower’s color, texture, and delicate shape. The complexity of the physics and psycho-physics may seem staggering, but consider: Without our usually being aware of it, perceiving a rose is the result of the spectral wavelength diversity of its different material reflectances, which our eye-brain system exploits to give us color vision. Thus the impression of the beautiful hue of a pink rose is due to the spectral distribution of reflected sunlight off of the petals, transmitted through air, detected by the spectrally tuned receptors in our eyes, and interpreted by our brains and minds.
In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul mentions the imperfections of our current observations of spiritual reality, using an analogy of looking into a physical mirror. It was none other than Isaac Newton who invented the first reflective telescope, which uses a mirror instead of a lens to focus light. In the case of either a reflecting or refracting telescope, the mirror and lens diameters are actually one of the fundamental limits to the effective resolution and sensitivity, which is why astronomers love big telescopes.
Our natural perceptions of electromagnetic radiation are an amazing gift from God. However, our eyes are designed to capture only a small sliver of the actual electromagnetic spectrum, and even with magnifying instruments our observations are imperfect. The visible light that we perceive is that portion of the EM spectrum between approximately .4 and .7 microns (millionths of a meter) wavelength. The EM spectrum extends orders of magnitude in wavelength on both sides of this window, and in the last few hundred years mankind has designed instruments that can measure these extended portions of the spectrum. By exploiting different qualities of creation that allow us “windows of vision” into the universe, astronomers are now able to see details of the universe that previous generations could not have imagined.
One of the windows to the universe is our atmosphere, the properties of which turn out to be quite extraordinary. One key property is the high transmittance of light at the wavelengths that are emitted in large proportion by the sun, and which are used by plants for photosynthesis and by animals and human beings for vision. Because of the high transparency of visible light through our atmosphere, we have been able to gauge properties of the solar system and stars using precise optical measurements. For example, helium was discovered in spectra of the sun before it was discovered on Earth.
The portion of the EM spectrum in the neighborhood of human vision comprises a very small fraction of the total electromagnetic emissions of the universe. On the side of “very small” windows of vision, we now have electron microscopes that focus on extremely tiny particles, observing the inward structure of cells. Far from being the simple blobby structures that were thought to compose cells in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we now have pictures of exquisite microstructures such as membranes and mitochondria composing a large number of subparts of living cells.
In the field of diagnostic medicine, X-rays with much smaller wavelengths than visible light are so routinely used that it is a rare person in the civilized world who reaches his or her 30th birthday without having had at least one. On the larger wavelength side of the visible EM spectrum, radio communication (including both radio and television) is one of the definers of the modern age, and radio telescopes allow amazing pictures of the universe at these longer wavelengths, revealing aspects of celestial objects that are otherwise unmeasurable.
It appears that our ability to “see” creation over a vast range from micro-to-macro scales is a gift. It is as if God wanted us to observe his creation and give him glory: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made . . .” (Rom. 1:20, NKJV). As we peek through these windows, we are only taking little glimpses into what God has already prepared and is allowing us to observe.
David M. Doria holds a BS in chemistry and an MS in medical physics from UCLA. He has worked for over 30 years in the areas of emission tomography and engineering algorithm development—and is a husband and father of four sons. This article is adapted from his book, The Character of Creation, with permission.
Also in this IssueIssue 15 / February 5, 2015
- Editors’ Note
- The Ultimate Law of the Universe: Grace
The paradox is that we fulfill it by letting go. /
- Poetic Justice at the Red Sea
A scholar explains what happened at the great biblical event. /
- A Jar of Buttons
‘from the floor of the Sea of Mending’ /
- Wonder on the Web
Links to amazing stuff