Riding Light, Time & Legal Thought

I first came across this animation about 2 months ago. Created by Alphonse Swinehart, the animation depicts the journey of a photon of light. The 45 minute clip shows a photon beginning its journey from the surface of the Sun, till it passes Jupiter. It is pretty tough, to try to make sense of some of the distances involved. Needless to say, these encounters with astronomy raise a number of provocations regarding human senses of time and cosmology. (Note on numbers: The figures I have chosen are taken from other websites. The figures may be slightly inaccurate, and I am aware that I may not fully understand all of them. Let alone, be able to verify them independently. Though, I suspect it would not matter too much.)

The adopted value for the speed of light is 299,792.458 kilometers per second. That is, a photon, takes a second to travel about three hundred thousand kilometers. 300,000 kilometers is a fantastically large figure. The Earth’s diameter is approximately 12,756 kilometers. This would mean that it takes just 0.043 seconds, approximately, for a photon of light to “pass” Earth. In human terms, it has been said that the fastest nerve cells carry messages along our axons at about 268 miles per hour. That is about 0.12 kilometers per second. To put things in a different perspective, the now grounded “Concorde” had a top speed of 0.6 km/s. In other words, in one second, a supersonic modern aircraft would have been able to move two-thirds of one kilometer.

In such terms, unsurprisingly, the speed of light was something that did not provide an obvious challenge to human sensory capacities. This is important, as without a challenge to the senses, there was no great existential need to ‘think’ about light. There was no great need to stipulate or explain our intuitions about light. We knew it came from fires and from celestial objects. In the every-day-sense of ‘thinking’, many more would have thought about food than about light.

Light has always been connected in a fundamental way to all of existence. Both in the existence of all we can see, and also, in what we think about ourselves. Yet, what are the consequences with not asking the ‘what was light’ question? Or, answering it incorrectly? Certainly, archaeological records show that a great deal of importance has been given to the Sun, Moon and fire. We know people found lit objects very important, enough to create scriptures and rituals around these objects.

However, humans could pretty much take the speed of light for granted. Light was perfectly true, as was the existence of everything light illuminated. My intention to make this point might be a little clearer if I was allowed exaggerate a little. When light was at play, there was no need for ‘thought’. No need for ‘expression’. No need for ‘language’. Nature was independent. Nature was outside of human thought. Nature exists, as it is, regardless of the manner in which it was observed. The idea of nature was absolutely distinctive from any individual sense of agency. Pure instinctive and aesthetic judgment could take over. Political philosophies and Gods could be founded. Since humans did not understand the speed of light, thus, the collapse between light and illumination. The consequences to human thought, was that it allowed us to extend our trust in sight to a trust in our thoughts. ‘Seeing is believing’. Perhaps, somewhat explaining aspects of Aristotle’s and Descartes’ philosophical contributions. 

In a grand way, the speed of light, illuminated the exterior world in a total manner. Of course, many people knew the Sun was a source of light from time immemorial. What they certainly did not know, was exactly how far away that light source was. It was so easy, then, to presume so many things about the sun, about light, and, about all the objects we can see in this world, including ourselves. Like Narcissus, all human societies must have fell in love with the image it thought it could see of itself and the world.

The acts of sensation and thought occurs within our bodies. Our bodies are in a completely different order of size compared to the distances travelled by a photon from the Sun. Amazingly, we have been able to give the speed of light a meaningful number that we can manipulate in a variety of calculations. However, I feel that it is easy to miss the point that it was immensely difficult for most people in human history to get their head around the concept of the speed of light. Our forebears would have quite easily assumed, ignored, taken for granted whilst they tried to formulate the ideal life.

Of course, post Newton and Einstein, we now know a lot more incredible things about light. Everything from the colour of ripe fruits, to the movement of the Sun, Moon and other celestial objects in the sky, is now understood in a far more complex manner. A complexity that brings with it a different kind of narration and explanation. 

These few statements in this blog post, make me think that the slow grasp and realisation of the ‘speed of light’ within human thinking, is a key and remarkable prism through which to form any comprehension of the evolution of human civilisation.

Most people nowadays are aware that it takes about 8 minutes, for light from “our” Solar system’s star (the Sun), to reach the Earth. The ‘8 minutes’ appears to have caught on with the public imagination, even amongst those who do not have much interest in astronomy. Jupiter is approximately 778 million kilometers from the Sun. This is to say, crudely, the animation above shows a photon making a 800 million kilometer journey in 45 minutes. Pluto, often thought of as the most distant planetary object, is almost 6 billion kilometers from the Sun. If we wished to see an animation, in “real” time, of the photon’s journey to Pluto, we would need to have a 5.5 hour video.

There are many  websites which attempt to show the solar system to scale. (Remember: not the universe, often just the solar system is tough enough!!) I recommend “View the solar system to scale“, where one gets a sense of how vast our solar system is through the act of web “scrolling”. I also recommend a website by the European Southern Observatory. One could download image formats, or, use a zoomable tool to navigate through a monumental mosaic, created from thousands of images taken by “VISTA” that were spliced together.

Generally, international legal thought has neither fully comprehended nor interrogated the picture of cosmology that astronomical physics has been able to produce in the last 100 years. When one looks to the figures of Hobbes, Confucius and Kelsen; there is no doubt that their analytical frameworks were either silent on matters of cosmology, or, simply inaccurate in scientific terms.

What is important for contemporary theory? I am not entirely sure, though I suspect theory should do more than just try to critique these silences and inaccuracies. The contemporary legal theorist, perhaps needs to accept that those theorists of the past may have been wrong about cosmology. However, the ways of thinking about politics and society, which they tried to represent, continue to have significance. The difficulty with this, is that their inaccuracies appear to demarcate many contemporary sensitivities about historically defined human values.

My current research in international law does not deal directly with cosmology. But it is something that is bubbling along at the periphery of my research. Smolin and Unger have recently published a book entitled: The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. Though I have yet to read their book, I did have the chance to read the front matter. Having said that, I have yet to fully digest their suggestions. For a relatively easy to read review, try this piece.

On the aside, I have a huge fan of Roberto Unger’s work. His writing has been  influential, the way the works of David Hume, Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze, David Kennedy, Martti Koskenniemi and Philip Allott have been (and continue to!). His ‘politically motivated’ and ‘humanist agenda’ approach to legal theory is one which I too am rather curious about, and indeed, seem to favour. Particularly, when Unger says, describing a contribution,

“This little essay also attacks the diminished and servile version of pragmatism that threatens to become the ruling philosophy of the age.” [Unger describing his 1997 essay “Science and Politics Between Domesticated and Radicalized Pragmatism”]

I have a number of issues with Smolin and Unger’s recent book though, and I hope I can get the opportunity soon to work on them. It would have to be after I finish my current projects. Interested in cosmology and international legal thought too? Get in touch!


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