A Ray of Light: The Timeless Life of a Photon

The journey of 15 quintillion miles would seem instantaneous. /

Yours is the day, yours also the night; you have established the heavenly lights and the sun. (Ps. 74:16, ESV)

If you know anything about the speed of light, it’s probably this: Light travels at 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum.

So if you step outside, the sunlight that hits your body left the sun almost 8 minutes ago.

But here’s the thing: From the light’s perspective, no real time has elapsed.

Einstein’s theory of relativity tells us that time is different at different speeds and gravitational pulls. So, when light is traveling at its maximum speed, time is perceived differently. When a photon travels at the speed of light, that photon is massless and, from the perspective of the photon, timeless.

It’s not just true of the relatively short distance from the sun to Earth. If a photon leaves a star and maintains the speed of light, from the photon's perspective no time transpires from its creation to its decay.

On a dark night in a suitably dark area, we can see the Andromeda galaxy, whose light has taken 2.5 million years to arrive at the back of our eye. But its journey of 15 quintillion miles would seem instantaneous to the light if it had some sort of consciousness.

“Time stands still for an object moving at the speed of light,” astrophysicist John Gribbin wrote. “From the point of view of the photon, of course, it is everything else that is rushing past at the speed of light. … You can either say that time does not exist for [a photon of light], so that it is everywhere along its path at once; or you can say that distance does not exist for [a photon].”

Essentially, when we discuss a photon of light, we are diving into a quixotic realm—the quantum world. As physicist Paul Davies wrote, “The quantum theory demolishes some cherished commonsense concepts about the nature of reality.”

When God created light, he created something completely different from any other physical substance. Such a curious state! Indeed, it is almost too difficult for us temporally bound creatures to imagine. (And I haven’t even talked about how light can act simultaneously as both a particle and a wave.) Time is such an instrumental part of our existence. We live, move, exist, and die all within time—even our eternities will be spent in time. Pondering our clocks can make us pause to contemplate the value of life and the possibility of eternity.

A massless, timeless ray (relatively speaking) has an existence that could span the universe and yet (relatively speaking) seem instantaneous. Its world is one of mystery and intrigue—a reality that should humble us time-bound creatures. Our lives, though precious and valuable, are limited in scope by the temporal boundaries we inhabit. Light shows us that there is so much more to creation than our simple, relative context. We can never step outside of time to get a fuller picture; but when we contemplate the God who created the photons of light, we can better understand that he has more going on than the photons that are currently hitting our eyes. If God created the relative timeless state of the light beam, he can assuredly handle my comings and goings.

Chad Meeks is a PhD student and adjunct professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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Issue 33 / October 15, 2015
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  5. Wonder on the Web

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