Of Light and Headlamp

It was always childhood fun to go and sleep at the maternal grandmother’s place on weekends.

The following morning at around 5 am, the old mater would wake up first and beckon the uncles and aunties repeatedly to get up fast because ‘Coq pe santé zenfants. Pou faire lizour’. And for me to wonder, at that tender age: what do cocks have to do with daylight? Is it possible that they do emit certain white vapours through their beaks, like human beings do through their mouths on cold days? But then, how many cocks would we need to fill the whole sky with light? It was a mystery that had to wait for years before elucidation!

Though we had known “la lampe petrole” from an early age, yet by our 9th year or so we had become very conversant with electric light. In my Fifth Standard, I would be at my friend Krishna’s place, some 100 meters away from home. It would be dusk yet we would still be playing and talking to the classmates. In front of his place was the big trunk of a fallen tree. Lying on it we gazed at the sky and perhaps at the moon. Suddenly we pondered loudly: “Is it possible to have a car vertically tilted with the front side pointing skywards – and if we switch on the headlamps fully – would it be possible to light the moon and would the light reach there?” We were confirmed experts for that evening – we gave our conflicting views. Little did we know at this age that light has a fantastic history behind it.

For some 380,000 years after the Big Bang our baby universe was cloaked in darkness. There was plasma (made of protons and neutrons) flowing around; but when those positive particles met with the negative electrons to form atoms, a gargantuan explosion of energy took place and light came to be. The afterglow of that burst of energy has reached our times, and is known as the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation – the very same which, on discovery some decades ago, had given some indirect proof of that 13.8 billion years old Big Bang. Gradually masses, galaxies and life would take shape. And our eyes, that wonder of all wonders, evolved after that light came on the scene – a process spanning million of years; and to believe that our sight appeared spontaneously is naïve on our part. Gradually our ancestors were witness to innumerable volcanoes, forest fires and lightening storms, but finally fire and light came to symbolize victory over darkness and the hostile environment.

Meanwhile our modern mind has tamed other types of light. Some of us still light a lamp in honour of our deities, while others have a festival of lights to denote the triumph enlightenment over ignorance.

Limelight

Discovered in the 1820s by Goldsworthy Gurney it was only in 1825 that Thomas Drummond developed limelight, later to be introduced in public theatre at Covent Garden in London in 1837. The process was to heat a canister of the mineral lime with an oxygen and hydrogen flame. This produced a strong white light that could be controlled and directed on stage to illuminate the actor of the moment, so as to enliven the lives of theatre lovers.

Moving into the social sphere, most of us would like to be in the limelight, in the figurative sense, first used in 1877; somehow or other it caresses our social self and physiologically would boost the dopamine level in the pleasure center of our brain. It does give us a sense of well- being, that all of us aspire to.

Later synonyms such as centre stage would be coined to describe someone who is out to seek the center of attention. As electricity and batteries were discovered, they replaced lime, and we inherited the spotlight, which would be most useful in mobile units in makeshift hospitals in case of war, areas struck by natural catastrophes and in dental surgeries. Similarly spotlight also became a synonym of limelight — literally and figuratively.

Lately there was the film Spotlight, which retraced the problem of paedophilia among the clergy; and many a priest was in the spotlight for the wrong reason. Of course, we were convinced that such irreligious, criminal behaviour affects mostly the men of church. Research has shown that 6% of both the civilian population and the clergy are affected by paedophilia. But as the men of God were supposed to be above the common mortals, they ultimately came in the limelight, more so as some in the church tried to cover up the scandal.

Far from the stage and hospitals we individuals like our torchlight; it comes in so handy when we have a flat tyre at night or when the electricity goes out during a cyclone. It is a pal to rely on in stressful situations.

Yet again some authors have used it figuratively just to drive their point home In one of his books Alan Watt tells us how unfortunate it is for us to go on living our life with a narrow vision of ourselves and of our world, and our failure to understand our position in this world. He insists that most of us come to believe in what we are conscious of and what we see as the ultimate reality; the rest is illusion.

For him, there is a broader and more universal truth than what meets our eyes and consciousness. Should we explore a dark cave with a torchlight, we will see only that part of it which falls in the patch of light; discovering the ceiling for the first time we will be tempted to believe that that part of the roof is the truth; swinging the light in thousand directions we shall be confronted with thousand options and interpret them as different realities, and this would skew our capacity to contemplate the whole cave in toto. It will be just patchy knowledge.

Must we stop carrying our consciousness as a head lamp and start thinking that there is a world beyond our own daily piecemeal experience? Must we be superbly educated and broad-minded so as to capture what reality is all about and so that we can appreciate the universe as a global truth? And not with the narrow-minded torchlight or head lamp of our consciousness? We have broad daylight but we psychologically choose patches of it to analyze our environment; we wear blinkers and deny ourselves the benefit of full light-our wisdom to live our life fully.

In his book, Alan Watts illustrated these physical blinkers by dealing with the problem of duality, of cause and effect : by peeping at the to and fro movement of a cat through a hole in a wall. We fail to look over the enclosure: we are not smart enough to see the whole cat, and can never realize that cause and effect are temporary illusions.

And the torchlight

A similar torchlight has also been used figuratively by Richard Dawkins, the well-known biologist and neo-Darwinist, to illustrate our confusion regarding our conception of time. Shining a pen torch on a wooden scale at night, we’ll see only that part in the light. This represents our present. As we move down the scale to view another spot we’ll discover another present, while the previous spot is already the past; all this while being aware that soon we’ll be seeing another ‘present’… in the future – as we move our pen torch further down the scale. Yet we know very well, if we were to look at the whole scale in broad daylight, that there is a total merging of the patchy past, present and future; they never existed separately. Our consciousness plays similar tricks on us, forcing us to forge what may not exist in reality.

Nowadays physicists are asking themselves whether time exists as we know it, whether, after all, past, present and the future are not just an inseparable continuum? And even experiments are being carried out to show that the future can affect the past! – all this has to do with quantum mechanics, particle and wave conceptions. It is named retro-causality.

Is it possible that our mind has become a prisoner of our own evolutionary process, making it difficult for us to view the whole at the same time, and that our brain being itself moulded by cause and effect cannot escape the non-dual world? Are our mind and brain inadequate, unprepared or insufficiently evolved to appreciate the whole?

The search goes on.

As Nobel laureate Peter Medawar put it, “Only human beings guide their behaviour by a knowledge of what happened before they were born and a preoccupation of what may happen after they are dead: thus only humans find their way by a light that illuminates more than the patch of ground they stand on.”

“Is it possible that our mind has become a prisoner of our own evolutionary process, making it difficult for us to view the whole at the same time, and that our brain being itself moulded by cause and effect cannot escape the non-dual world? Are our mind and brain inadequate, unprepared or insufficiently evolved to appreciate the whole?

The search goes on. As Nobel laureate Peter Medawar put it, ‘Only human beings guide their behaviour by a knowledge of what happened before they were born and a preoccupation of what may happen after they are dead: thus only humans find their way by a light that illuminates more than the patch of ground they stand on’…”

* Published in print edition on 15 July 2016

 

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