With each of my seven newborns, I mourned the loss of every day. I literally wept at times, joyous but overwhelmed with the awareness that I could not get time back. I remember the pain: She’ll never be one day old again. Then, two days old again. That was the last day she’ll ever be one week. The first month is gone forever. Each day was a death of life, and I wanted to capture every coo, blink, and touch. In time, I realized that all moments are like that. The present rides the crest of a wave perpetually propelled into the future from the past, while uncountable billions of details pass by.
This obsession with detail comes with knowledge of physical science. I am fond of instructing my students to put their “chemistry glasses” on, to close their eyes and forget the macroscopic realm so I can paint the abstract land of atoms and teach them how to do chemistry. It deepens the way they see the world. I’ve lived with my head in Atomville for so long that sometimes equations light up in the corner of my vision when I look at nature.
Consider the second. There are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day, which means 86,400 seconds tick from one morning to the next. In science, the second is precisely defined. In 1967, the International Committee of Weights and Measures formally declared the second as “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium-133 atom.”
High school students learn about the energy levels (n=1-7) and orbitals (s, p, d, f) that organize elements on the periodic table. They learn that electrons in the ground state can be excited with energy to higher levels. When electrons relax to the ground state, precise wavelengths of energy, called photons, radiate – that correspond to the quantized energy difference. We call this light.
Hyperfine states are beyond the scope of high school though. The ground state is not actually one distinct energy level. Because electrons have spin (up, down), and the protons have spin (also up, down), there are energetic combinations of possible states between electrons and protons with very, very close energies, i.e. hyperfine splitting. These can be calculated and are millions of times smaller than differences in the energy levels and orbitals.
It’s not just a physics problem. The radiation from these transitions can be reliably observed. Hence, atomic clocks provide a continuous time-scale that is synchronized with the rotation of the Earth and solar time. Global society depends on this mechanism, from military and space communication to digital systems in computers, phones, TVs, games, pacemakers, and GPS devices.
In my view, this is cause for joyous weeping too. There is so much to appreciate in the handiwork of God that goes unnoticed, unappreciated, and lost, even in the counting of the second itself. A day is practically an infinity of events!
You know that Albert Camus book, The Stranger? I’ve read it twice, once in my twenties and again in my forties. The title character, Meursault, amused me at first because I fancied his cool detachment. Now, I pity his narcissism. The saddest scene is the one when he is in prison awaiting death by guillotine for committing murder. While incarcerated, Meursault said he learned the “trick of remembering things.” To pass time, he began repeatedly recounting every object that had been in his bedroom, each time recalling minor details until he could spend hours listing the minutiae of half-forgotten or mal-observed memories, a dent, a chip, the wood grain.
Meursault thought his memory compensatory. “I realized then that a man who had lived only one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison. He would have enough memories to keep him from being bored.” There is truth in that. Of course, Meursault only did it to keep busy. He wanted no redemption. In the end, he met death thinking the universe as indifferent towards humanity as he was, his only joy lay in imagining that many people would watch his head be severed.
Meursault had it wrong. Life is supposed to be a journey to sainthood, for we are held accountable for our choices in the highest court, the court of the Lord of Creation. Maybe we cannot stop time and commit every detail of electrons, atoms, compounds, proteins, organs, and organisms to memory. But we can be aware that every second is a steady march to the end – a journey we live because we are made in the image and likeness of God with the spiritual powers of intellect and will.
There will be suffering and sundering. The babies we hold may someday leave us, but the memories are as permanent as our unconditional love. Our skin may wrinkle and our beauty fade, but only because we lasted long enough. Our hearts may break and heal, and break again until we think ourselves mad. Our hands may hesitate to reach out in friendship for fear of rejection, but we will do it anyway. We may doubt and be doubted. We may despair. We may rail against injustice. We may long for peace, and the sole peace we may ever find is interior. We may endure and forfeit much in this life, but only because we can think and feel.
Our goal is to get to the end, to that last second when the passing of time no longer matters, to reject evil and fix our souls in goodness for all eternity at the instant of death. As Christians, we have the assurance that through it all God is faithful. He will grant us the grace to do His will if we pray for it and accept it each day, as surely as 9,192,631,770 hyperfine oscillations just happened somewhere in a Cesium-133 atom.
Nerdy perhaps, but it resonates true.