Notre Dame, and the Religious Experience in Science

Notre Dame burning on April 19, 2019 superimposed on NASA Spitzer IR image of Andromeda galaxy
NASA Spitzer IR image of Andromeda: public domain; Notre Dame: Marin Dacos, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 4.0, composited by the author in GIMP

As I write this post on April 15, 2019, Notre Dame in Paris has collapsed into a caldron. The shimmering embers of its delicate spire have tumbled into an eruption of cinders, consumed by billows of incandescent smoke. The visible apse and nave of that magnificent church — one of the world’s greatest architectural wonders — has been lifted to the sky in a column of ash, chaired remains on the ground, and mass converted to energy as photons of light now some six light hours distant, almost to the planet Neptune. While now, here on earth, one of the bell towers is on fire.

Notre Dame was the holiest of holy places I’d ever been. That place which so stirred a hard agnostic like me, 800 years after it was built to inspire. When I walked between those massive bell towers, beneath those many saints on guard at its entrance portal, and looked up at that magnificent North Rose Window, I knew I was in the right place. Kaleidoscopic colors carved the shadows. Sounds were vague and cavernous. Thousands of candles lit fissures otherwise black as pitch. Above me, that vault of heaven dripped with golden shimmers off the boney marrow of stone supports like those other imposing sanctuaries in France: Lascaux, Trois-Frères, and Chauvet. All of it combined to lift me skyward as though an iron man drawn by its magnetic antiquity. A religious experience without the religion. I felt dizzy. I stood in that spot for the longest time, afraid to move and miss something. I walked to the nearest pew and for two hours absorbed the place by every pore on my skin. I was staggered by what humans can do.

It wasn’t the last time I had such a revelation. In a completely different and sterile setting, it happened in Los Angeles.

When I approached LAX from the sky it was just “another day of sun,” as the song by that name sings from the musical La La Land. They don’t call it a Mediterranean climate for nothing. One of just five slivers on planet earth with ideal sun, temperature, and humidity (unlike Florida). Conditions so foreign to the rest of us that after six months of living there I went outside one morning to wonder if I’d ever see another cloud. I became solar powered, an attitudinal boost that must be lived to be understood. Visitors can never grasp it. With all those rays from Ra, how could I have ever felt so down about life, death, corruption, money launderers, adulterers, and criminal presidents above the law? (Actually, the combination of money launderer, adulterer, and criminal president above the law did not yet exist.)

But sadly, I was flying into Southern California because I didn’t live there anymore. I had moved back to Dallas, leaving behind that celebrated California climate where I could tell what time of day it was by how the air tasted (who needs a clock?), and regularly sat in traffic to turn my wheels over 3 miles in 90 minutes (“relaxation”).

Still relishing the memories from my window seat, I saw what I could of those arousing Sierra Mountains: Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Death Valley, and Yosemite National Parks. Those beaches and islands in the world’s largest body of water where each night after a jog on the Strand I watched that orange, oblate spheroid dive into the Underworld. In Dallas, I had Starbucks. And the most remarkable work of my career in an applied research group of the most innovative, motivated engineers and scientists I would ever have the good fortune to know.

Our group at Lockheed had hired a JPL spinoff called OEWaves in Pasadena. Pasadena lies just below that great telescope where in 1924 Edwin Hubble discovered we live in but one galaxy among billions, each with hundreds of billions of suns. Downhill at OEWaves, the engineers and scientists there were building a microwave photonic receiver born from a design we created, improved by their own intellectual property. The word receiver simply means we were building a radio. The words microwave and photonic means we were leveraging a new technology that unifies radio waves with laser light for all sorts of advantages.

In OEWaves’ clean room I suited up in hermetic attire to look through a microscope at that itsy-bitsy device. Not just any radio, it used something called the whispering gallery mode of a microdisk. “Whispering gallery” gets its name from London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, where in 1878 Lord Rayleigh discovered he could hear a person whisper from the other side of the dome’s gallery many meters away. In that case, sound waves were pressed against the circular dome as they bounced around its perimeter. In our case, light waves made that transit in a miniature disk of something like glass.

As I envision my magnified eye gazing down into that tiny house furnished with dazzling physical phenomena, one in particular deserves embroidery. As far back as Isaac Newton, people knew that when light is shone into a prism there are angles of entry beyond which all light will reflect off the back of that prism with none passed through the other side. A process called — and for once appropriately — total internal reflection. But at the point of reflection, something inexplicable happens. Recall that light photons, be they from your computer screen, lightbulb, or our receiver’s laser, exist in only one state — gliding through space at 186,000 miles per second (3e8 m/s). Photons are always and only on the move. Except when totally internally reflected, from one dense medium to a less dense medium, like the glass of a prism interfaced with air. On the other side of that glass, in the air hugging its surface, is a fuzz of virtual photons. Virtual because they’re not real. Yet, there they are, loitering at zero miles per second.


By creating this fuzz of magic light, and only by this means, can those photons be “frustrated” by another dense medium like glass placed within mere nanometers of the prism. Simply intruding upon that ghostly space makes those photons real again. As though they’ve been seen to violate the law and run away humiliated. In our radio, it was the microdisk that so rudely disturbed their peaceful misbehavior. Once revived, those particles of laser light would whiz about its whispering gallery. And do so for long periods of time as we imposed information upon them by the modulation of radio waves applied to the disk. Without elaborating that last process, it’s how we made laser light carry radio waves to then manipulate the result in useful ways.

As my eye peered down into that enigmatic world, we turned on the device and absolutely nothing happened. No explosions, no fist fights, no car chases. All those circuit elements just sat there. Yet on the spectrum analyzer output, a brassy signal hurled above the noise from our elfin radio. Rock and roll was never so loud. A sorcerer’s brew of Nature’s mysteries and God’s laws swirled in that tiny tabernacle to science smaller than a sugar cube. Those virtual-not-real photons I couldn’t see were resurrected from the dead, right in front of me. It was an epiphany.

Like my elevation at Notre Dame, I felt dizzy. I hunched over that microscope for the longest time, afraid to move and miss something. I walked to a chair. I sat down and tried to absorb what just happened. Overcome with awe, momentarily speechless, I was staggered by what humans can do.

Much is made of the potential for science to steal meaning from our world. But as physicist Richard Feynman said, “I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. Do I see less, or more?” That answer’s easy: much more. I used to watch my advisor and one time astronomy instructor, James Van Allen, preach science to students filling the pews in a 300-seat temple to learning. Nary a one came away undazzled. So enthusiastic in his measured way was he for the subject, he seemed like a priest for Truth, possessed by the Spirit, the Salvation of Science.

So, religion and science; are the two aspirations really so different? I don’t mean in how they talk, or the way they practice. Religion accepts supernatural cause, and the effects are miracles. Science accepts only natural cause, and there are no miracles. I mean in the way they make us feel. Not small, not insignificant as so many claim, but bigger than life. More expansive than the galaxy we live in and know so much about, while forever more to learn, ascendant by that knowledge.

By the time I upload this post, the final flash from Notre Dame will be over 300 billion miles distant. Far beyond the 13-billion-mile boundary of our solar system — which took Voyager 40 years to reach — but still over four years from our nearest stellar neighbor. The marvel of photosynthesis formed into plant cells of wood, carved by craftsman, exalted by art, and part of that church will sail on as the memory of what it was. It’s odd to think that it will do so long after those who saw it are dead. Long after the human race is extinct. Long after earth is vaporized by a dying sun, Notre Dame’s whisper will persist, like a prayer for help from the cosmos. Another prayer unanswered.

Paragraph 7: Notice that I, like all of us familiar with the discipline use the words “light,” “waves,” and “photons” interchangeably.

Paragraph 10: Physicists familiar with the term “virtual photon” will protest my use of the word here since it is usually attributed to those photons engaged in force exchange between charged particles, i.e., the particle representation of electromagnetic interaction. A more proper designation would be that TIA (total internal reflection) produces evanescent waves that fall away exponentially in amplitude from the prism/air interface. But that’s a whole other bag of worms to elucidate.



Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and

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Brett Alan Williams

Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and