We’re living in an afterimage.

This thought occurred to me this morning when — for no reason I can pinpoint — I flashed on the concept of the light-year…

The light-year, as you may or may not know, is not a measure of time, but rather of distance: it’s how far light can travel in one of our earthly years.  Given that light hums along at approximately 300,000 kilometers per second (for the metrically-challenged, that would be about 186,000 miles per second), that’s pretty far, alright…

Fact: the Universe is really big.  And also?  Stuff is really, really far away from us...
Fact: the Universe is really big. And also? Stuff is really, really far away from us…

It’s easy to forget these concepts when we focus so much on our own lives here on Earth.  We generally don’t deal all that much with objects that are even thousands of kilometers (or miles) away from us, much less millions, billions, trillions, or even greater (x)-illions, unless we’re taking a moment to gaze up at stars in the sky…about which, more in a moment…

But so when we look at things around us in the world, there seems to be no lag whatsoever between what is, and what we see.  If something occurs nearby, we seem to see it exactly as it happens, with no discernible delay.  And that’s because the distances involved are so relatively tiny, that light leaps between the objects we’re observing and our eyes far more quickly than our sensory equipment can hope to process the whole affair…but that doesn’t mean there isn’t actually some infinitesimal delay happening in there!  There actually is — we just can’t detect it.  But to the “eyes” of some Divinity that might also be watching, there is definitely a lag, however micro-microscopic it might be to us.

So I made mention of star-gazing up above…  Not an unpleasant diversion, right…?

Ahh, the stars in the nighttime sky: pretty!!
Ahh, the stars in the nighttime sky: pretty!!

But when you factor in the vast gulfs that separate us here on Earth from those stars way off in space, and then you start to do some math, you realize that the distances involved are so great, that the light emitted from those same stars actually takes years upon years to reach us.  Put another way, we’re seeing light from stars that have changed in the eons since they emitted that light — for all we know, those stars have since moved on, evolved, aged, and may well have even burned out entirely before their light arrived here in our cosmic neighborhood.  It’s like we opened a time capsule to look at an ancient photograph of a star as it once was, many ages ago.

It’s hard to work with a scale as enormous as all that, though.  Moving closer to home, then, consider for a moment, the light surrounding us that was issued forth by our own Sun, the beloved star we call Sol.  The Sun is 150 million kilometers away from us.  But wait — light only travels at 300,000 kilometers per second (“only”…).  So clearly, light from the Sun doesn’t at all reach us here on Earth instantaneously.  It actually takes 150 million km / 300 thousand km per second = 500 seconds, or a bit more than eight minutes, for the Sun’s light to brighten things up here on Terra.

For light, Sun-to-Earth is a quick trip...but it's by no means over in an instant...
For light, Sun-to-Earth is a quick trip…but it’s by no means over in an instant…

That means that if we steal a glance at that big, life-giving fireball up there in our sky, the light impacting our eyeballs actually left Light HQ on Sol more than eight minutes before!  We’re seeing the Sun as it was a short while ago, not as it is now.  Sure, it’s a fairly safe bet that no major changes will have occurred in those 8+ minutes, but it’s not guaranteed…

And what if we drill down even further into scale?  Even though we can’t detect any lag due to light’s obligation to travel between the nearby objects we observe and our eyes that are doing the observing, that lag — as mentioned above — is happening nonetheless.  So while said lag may not be nearly as extended as an interval of eight minutes…in the eyes of Creation, it’s still a lag.  Meaning: whatever we look at around us, whatever we see…we’re looking at a memory of that thing observed.  We’re seeing it as it was — maybe “as it was” only a quadrillionth of a second ago, or some even-tinier-fraction-for-which-I’d-have-to-research-out-a-proper-name, but still, we’re seeing it as it was.  Not as it is, as we might like to think — but as it was.

We’re looking at old snapshots of existence.  Not terribly old, not to our limited senses, but they’re still photos of the past.

We’re living in an afterimage of reality.  Or…our perceptions are mortal enough that we can only perceive reality as a series of afterimages, given the time it takes us to upload sensory data from the Universe and process it.

Life passes us by even more quickly than the Flash: by the time our eyes register it's presence, it's already gone (artwork by !jj1028 on deviantART)...
Life passes us by even more quickly than the Flash: by the time our eyes register its presence, it’s already gone (artwork by !jj1028 on deviantART)…

So what to do with this realization?  Is there some way to experience life exactly as it happens?  And even if there is, do we need to do so?  Would this be somehow “better” than what we know at present?

I actually don’t have the answers to those questions.  I just thought that highlighting them might not be a horrible idea, as contemplating them forces us to deal with the fact that when seen from a certain lofty scale, we might be taken to be rather insignificant…and this may not be a bad concept to occasionally bump up against so as to brush up on our humility.  And then again, seeming relatively slight when compared to the Universe itself or to some Divinity than can work on that scale is hardly an insult, and seeming insignificant isn’t the same thing as being insignificant.  Each of us can be seen as a microcosm of Existence itself — “As above, so below” — and we’re here now, perceiving as we can, which I’m sure is part of our very function here, our very reason for being in the first place: to perceive, and to experience.

So I guess the suggestion here is to once in a while meditate for a moment on the dizzying scope of the Universe, but also don’t get lost in it or overwhelmed by it — at some point, also release any need to fully grasp it, and just relax into being, on the scale we were designed to inhabit.

We can’t detect that lag I’ve been talking about anyway, and as afterimages go, this Universe of ours is a pretty superlative one!


    • Wow, seriously thought-provoking! Thanks for providing that link. That transcript is from 1999…so I wonder how close they are now to having nailed down the laws of “quantum gravity” that they were discussing…?

      • I don’t know about that but we do know that NASA is working on these things. They are conducting “theoretical” experiments on time warp technology, as well as the CERN experiments.

      • Really amazing stuff. It seems like you almost have to be able to speak in math in order to truly keep up, but I do enjoy reading some of the material flowing out of these experiments when it gets boiled down for the non-scientist (like me).

        Also: I miss Carl Sagan. I still have fond memories of watching his “Cosmos” series on PBS when I was a youngster…

      • I have had to write about 3 Essays for school in which I have had to review NASA papers or Scientific papers for sources, and not being a scientist or good at math, I have just had to take the jest of it and do my best. lol

      • I think that kind of digesting and summarizing is a bit of an artform unto itself, to be honest! I guess it’s a bit easier in the lower-pressure venues of our own blogs, though, where we’re not being graded (or…we’re not bring graded in the same way we are in school situations, anyway…).

    • You’re more than welcome, James, and thanks so much for taking the time to comment! I really appreciate that, and will keep on doing my best to provoke positive thought here…;)

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