Light is something the universe does.


I wanted to use that statement in an article I wrote a long time ago, but the editor didn’t allow it. What ever could I have meant by such an odd statement? Just this.

Light is ubiquitous. We know what happens when we enter a dark room and flip on a light switch. Suddenly (and it does seem to be sudden) objects in the room become visible. A flashlight can do something similar, and we can even direct the beam of the flashlight at particular objects and not at others.

I remember being puzzled by the car’s rearview mirror. I’d ask an adult what the mirror was for and learn that it gave a view behind and outside the car. Not from my vantage point, though. Apparently the light entering another’s eyes could be different than the light entering my own.

I also remember standing outside on a warm summer day, feeling the heat of the Sun on my face, my hands, my back. Light bulbs that had been on were hot to the touch, and a crayon positioned under a lamp would melt into a waxy puddle. Light could do things.

But what was it?

Another early memory is of my dad building for me an electromagnet from a battery and some wire. Pressing on the wire over the battery brought the wire into contact with the button at the top, completing the circuit and allowing the whole thing to pick up paper clips, screws, and so on. How was it that completing a circuit could turn wire and a battery into a magnet?

What I didn’t know was that every time I completed that circuit, I was sending electrons streaming along the wire, and those electrons were sniffing out the space all around. The way that electrons sniff involves spreading electric (if the electrons are still) or both electric and magnetic (if the electrons are moving) fields, and the ability to sniff in a particular medium (air, say, or water, or rubber, or anything else in the space) is called the permittivity (for electric fields) or permeability (for magnetic fields) of the medium.

What if there is no medium? What if the circuit is just surrounded by pure vacuum? Even here there is a permittivity, as well as a permeability. In fact, these are constants of nature, known as ε(read as epsilon zero, the permittivity constant) and µ(read as mu zero, the permeability constant). These values show up in the most interesting places; for instance εappears in the formula stating how strongly two electrically-charged objects feel each other when separated by some distance r:

\ F_C = \frac{1} {4 \pi \varepsilon_0} \frac{q_1 q_2} {r^2}

Meanwhile an analogous formula for magnetic field strength includes µ0


(Note that magnetic fields are about electric current I, while electric fields are about electric charge q, indicating that it’s moving electrons that cause magnetic effects).

What does all this have to do with light? Just this. Around 1861 Scottish physicist James Clerk (pronounced “Clark”) Maxwell was fiddling around with the equations for electric and magnetic fields. What happened next changed our understanding of the universe forever. Maxwell found that his equations predicted that electric and magnetic fields could propagate through empty space, one producing the other on and on. That propagation would take the form of a varying electric and magnetic field moving in a particular direction. The speed of that propagation came out as a constant number, dependent only on the electric and magnetic constants εand µ0.


Even more amazing, though, was the number Maxwell got when he plugged those numbers into the equation. The value of c came out suspiciously close to the measured value for the speed of light! Put the equations of electricity and magnetism together, and the speed of light comes flying out of your math, unbidden and unexpected, but undeniably there.

We now know that any time electrons jiggle, whether it’s in the radio transmitter of your cell phone, in the awesome accelerated motion of an x-ray machine, or even in the hot filament of a flashlight, the result is light. Some of that light you can see, like a small portion of the light from a hot light bulb filament. Much of it you can’t see, like the radio light flying away from your cell phone or the x-ray light bouncing off your dental fillings, or the infrared light that does much of the work in heating your face in the Sun or your crayons under a lamp. Yet every bit of it is light, an electrical and magnetic vibration in the very fabric of the universe.

Light is something the universe does.