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The Physics of Light between Culture and Nature, by E. Calogero Giannetto

The Symbolism of Light

Scientific symbolism —mathematical, astronomical, physical etc.— and literary symbolism have common roots.

As is well known, the first human symbolic practices have appeared at least since 40.000 years ago. There were geometrical pictures, numbers, animal representations and so on. The most relevant examples are the pictograms of Lascaux and other caves. Very recent computer simulations have shown that these pictures in reality are maps of the sky vault of that epoch, where the animals are heavenly animals, that is to say star constellations. This kind of interpretation allows us to understand the rise of symbolism as the religious evocation of distant heavenly gods, namely of star-gods [1]. The term “animal” had a wider meaning than now and indicated every animated being able to move itself as a star or “linked” stars.

The first symbols had both a religious and an astronomical meaning as long as we know from comparative history of religions that the first religions were astral ones.

Light symbols, constellations are the first signs and the basis of the same alphabet: our language has its root within heaven and was a gift from heaven. There was a celestial Logos, which produced our language by a “katasterism”. As well as geometry is first of all a geometry of heaven light: a geometrical point is a starlight point on the sky vault and the straight line is a light ray. All the geometrical figures are derived by light rays which have been uniting star luminous points.

This means that the first mathematical (arithmetical or geometrical) symbols were astronomical and religious. Material signs were copies of light realities, or material transcriptions of light symbols.

Indeed, stars were considered as eyes, and as such, sources of light. Light is not only the stuff of which star-gods are made, but also the gaze of gods’ eyes. It is commonly acknowledged that in the ancient Greek perspective optics was a science of vision, of visual rays emitted by the eyes and not a real science of light itself. However, we must remember that light rays were considered visual rays of star-gods’ eyes: divine eyes, not human ones. Optics was an actual science of light itself, a science of God’s vision. Geometry as long as was strictly related to optics was a divine science: theo-remata (theorems) were in fact the words of God.

Light is the appearance of God, that is the “Word of God”, the symbol of God. Physis was Phaos or Phos: Nature was Light. And Light was the Logos, the Word of God. All the world was made by Light and human beings can see and know only through and by means of the Light symbols of God. Our thinking is due only to God’s enlightenment.

Light symbols are ideograms or mythograms, as they were called by the anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan [2].

However, even the alphabetical signs derived by constellation signs. Symbols are “katasterisms”, that is also ways to ascend to heaven because they went down from the heaven.

The visible propagation of light is by straight lines: this property of light is at the roots of a series of ways of speaking, of seeing, of thinking and of living.

Rightness and righteousness and all the related concepts have this symbolical common origin. The first words are ideograms, icons or images: the word itself is isomorphic to light as a theophany. As soon as words changed to compositions of an alphabetic, phonetic, linear kind of writing, the iconic function of words changed from the syntactic to the semantic level by an all connecting system of rhetorical figures able to produce images.

Rhetorical figures by which literary discourses develop and organize themselves are metaphors of the same geometrical imagination lines: ellipses, hyperboles, parables. Similarly, catoptrics and dioptrics have been concerned with seeing not by straight lines, but by reflections and refractions.

Thinking is con-templating and con-sidering, that is to say something related to temples as regions of the sky and to sidereal activity of seeing. Straight seeing is at the basis of straight thinking, that is seeing by straight lines without optical illusions related to reflections and refractions.

These symbols of light have constituted the first symbols of science, religion and art as non-separable human activities. There was science within the myths and science and literature were one and the same thing.

Even when, at the beginnings of the 20th century, the paths of light have been recognized to be curvilinear, they were considered as the straight (direct) lines of a new kind of a non-Euclidean geometry [3]. According to general relativity theory, light, having no weight, expands itself and creates an unlimited spherical space changing with time: things have to move following curvilinear paths, which are the direct (straight) ones. Where there is matter, the light space is not empty and is curved. Expansion is not falling down but ascension. A curvilinear path is straight within a non-flat geometry. Consequently, a new symbolism appears: like this new kind of space and its non-linear structures, there is no direct way of speaking and thinking, which may so be represented by parables, ellipses and hyperboles. These should represent Nature as an entangled expanding field of Light.

Light symbols are at the roots of mathematics and sciences and also of the so-called natural languages. Moreover, light is the Word of God; as a result, science and literature are kinds of revelation of light.

Physics and Light

Since the rise of modern science in the 17th-18th centuries, a new conception of Nature arose in conjunction with the emergence of mechanics as the most relevant scientific discipline: the so-called mechanistic conception of Nature as a machine, namely as inert matter.

However, in the late 19th century physics was merely mechanics any more, but comprehended also thermodynamics and electrodynamics. Consequently, the very foundations of physics were at stake, together with the hierarchical relations among these disciplines [4].

There were at least four different «fighting» conceptions of Nature. The Mechanistic one, conservatively searching for a mechanical reduction of all physical disciplines and physical concepts in terms of mass, space and time using the models of material point and action at-a-distance forces. Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894), Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894) and Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906) were the most representative scientists adhering to this perspective.

The so-called Energetic conception of Nature considered energy as the fundamental unifying concept of physics. It was maintained by Georg Helm (1851-1923) and Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932).

The Thermodynamic conception of Nature, whose fundamental concepts were energy, entropy and system, looked at thermodynamics as the real foundation block of physics. Its major exponents were Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) and Max Planck (1858-1947).

The Electromagnetic conception of Nature, based on the concepts of field, energy and charge, looked at electromagnetism theory as the foundation level of the other physical disciplines. Among the physicists who gave it the most relevant contributions there are: Hendrik Antoon Lorentz (1853-1928), Joseph Larmor (1857-1942), Wilhelm Wien (1864-1928), Max Abraham (1875-1922) and Henry Poincaré (1854-1912). This conception is deeply rooted in the religious, theological and philosophical tradition, comprehending the Brunian-Leibnizian physics and thought, the German physics or Naturphilosophie and the English physics. Even Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was thinking about magnetism as the force which rules the order of our cosmos. According to George Berkeley, geometry and optics are not expressions of human perception, but of God’s vision.

After the process by which Newton’s theology of gravitation was given up and the mechanistic conception of Nature became dominant, electricity came back to be considered the way to develop a new vitalistic conception of Nature. It was considered an active vital force which could have been even the same psyche or the Anima Mundi. Many theologians and physicists, among which there are Joseph Anton von Balthasar (1692-1763), Prokop Divisch (1698-1765), Friedrich Cristoph Œtinger (1702-1782), Johan Ludwig Fricker (1729-1766), Gottlieb Friedrich Rösler (1740-1790), developed a very theology and psychology of electricity.

The controversy on animal electricity between Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) and Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) gave another turn to the consideration of the problem. Its resolution with the affirmation of Volta’s perspective, along with his presentation, in 1800, of the first ‘electric machine’, the battery, stated the victory of the mechanistic view: even electricity could have been assimilated to mechanisms.

Maxwell electromagnetism had shown that physical reality was not only inertial and passive matter, but also dynamical, active electromagnetic field, irreducible to a mechanical matter model. Furthermore, electromagnetic field exists even when there is no matter. Thus, the possibility of a new non-dualistic view of physical reality was considered: if matter cannot exist without electromagnetic field and electromagnetic field can exist without matter, electromagnetic field could be the only physical reality, while matter could be derived from the field.

Usually, the electromagnetic conception of Nature has been considered as superseded by the developments of 20th century physics. However, a deep historical inquiry shows that the electromagnetic conception of Nature is at the roots of both the relativistic and quantum transformations of the whole contemporary physics [5].

Electromagnetic field is a dynamical and propagating activity: it is electromagnetic waves, that is essentially visible and invisible Light. Thus, electromagnetism gave as well a new foundation to optics. Indeed, one can understand not only matter but also electric and magnetic charges in terms of the field, namely of Light. In my opinion, contemporary physics as well as astrophysics and cosmology point towards a new vision of Nature, we can say towards a photical idea of Nature. Coming back to the ancient etymology of physis from phaos, since Nature shows itself as Light, Physics becomes Photics. This view of physics leads back to the archaic symbolism of Light and allows for a new possible relationship among physics, religion and myth, literature and art, as long as they all are related to Light.

Light in the Theory of Relativity

Since Ole Christensen Roemer (1644-1710) has measured in the period 1672-1676 the finite velocity of light, our idea of the universe is changed: we know that all things visible to us are things as they were at a previous time because we perceive light arrival after a certain time related to their distance from us. When we consider ourselves as separate material finite parts of the universe, we establish spatial relations of distance between the different parts of the universe, and so we perceive and measure a correspondent finite time of propagation of light between these different parts, as if there was no already existent connection. We are not able to perceive the wholeness and our finite perception splits this wholeness of the physical world in space and time. Rigorously there are no simultaneous things, but only events in different times. Space is time and our universe does not extend in space, but develops in time. Geometry of space had to be changed in a chrono-geometry of space-time, where time is a fourth internal dimension of things. Things are temporal events, time processes.

Indeed, at the rise of the theory of relativity there was a very strong entanglement among science, literature, spirituality and religion. Henry More in 1669[6] was the first to introduce a fourth dimension for theological and physical reasons: he argued that a kind of extension must be attributed also to God and the souls, and he followed Paul (Eph 3:18) to explain how it can be that the world lives within God (Acts 17:28); the fourth dimension was introduced also to understand miracles and spiritual penetrabulity.

After the first formal considerations of D’Alembert and Lagrange on time as fourth dimension, after non-Euclidean and n-dimensional geometries were developed in the first half of the 19th century, a fourth dimension, in some case to be identified with time, was invoked to understand spiritual and parapsychology phenomena. Charles Howard Hinton was the first one, being influenced by Henry More, since he wrote a paper in 1884 [7], to which the considerations of an anonymous scientist on Nature (1885) and of the astronomer Simon Newcomb (1893, 1898) followed; next, Herbert George Wells in the novel The Time Machine (1895) [8], and finally the poet astronomer Camille Flammarion developed these ideas. Flammarion inquired the properties of light as timeless, deducing conceptually the relativity of time and space (Lumen, 1866, 1872) [9]; he developed the idea of the fourth dimension to understand the relationship of the life after death, eternity and time [10]. Flammarion’s views strongly influenced Poincaré [11]; his Universe seen as a living animate being was certainly the deep inspiration of his revolutionary work. Hermann Minkowski clarified mathematically and conceptually Poincaré’s view of an absolute timeless world of light [12]. Picasso [13] and Escher [14] were influenced by Poincaré’s work on non-Euclidean and four-dimension geometries. Ouspensky and Florensky came back to the spiritual meaning of relativity [15].

Thus, as already said, a deep historical inquiry shows that the electromagnetic conception of Nature is at the roots of the relativistic physics. Concerning relativity, various papers written by Poincaré [16] show that special relativity dynamics derived from, and was a first realization of, the electromagnetic conception of Nature. Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) special relativity formulation was only an incomplete (without a gravitation theory) semi-mechanistic version of this new dynamics.

A first complete presentation of this new dynamics appeared in the July 1905 paper written by Poincaré and published in 1906 [17]. In this paper, the new dynamics was presented as an invariant one by the Lorentz-Poincaré transformation group, with a four-dimensional chrono-geometry of space-time, and it was derived by Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism and contained also a theory of gravitation, absent in Einstein’s 1905 paper [18]. Concerning four-dimensional space-time, the dependence of Minkowski from Poincaré is clear from the lecture delivered on 5 November 1907 by Minkowski but published posthumous on 1915. Poincaré proposed also a relativistic field theory of gravitation with the prevision of the existence of gravitational waves, propagating in vacuum with velocity c, that is the same light velocity.

The starting point was electromagnetic self-induction phenomenon related to the so-called radiation reaction. When a charged particle is submitted to the action of an electromagnetic field, it is accelerated and it irradiates. This radiation modifies the field and the new field modifies the acceleration of the particle, which again irradiates and so on. In this way, the electromagnetic field depends on all the time derivatives of position up to the infinite one. This means that there is also a contribution to the field force proportional to the acceleration, the coefficient of which involves an electromagnetic mass, which is an electromagnetic contribution to the particle inertia. There is inertia in respect to a single local force because every particle is within a cosmic electromagnetic field of the remaining part of the universe.

At this moment, the question was: is it possible that mechanical (inertial and gravitational) mass was not a primitive concept and indeed is wholly due to this electromagnetic effect? Poincaré, among other scientists, realized that mechanical mass was nothing else than electromagnetic mass, and electromagnetic mass is not a static fixed quantity but depends on velocity. Mass is so related to the electromagnetic field energy by the today well-known (now considered from a mechanistic and not electromagnetic perspective) equation: m = Ee.m. field / c2 .

If mass is nothing else than electromagnetic field energy and charge can be defined, via Gauss’ theorem, as the electric field flux through a certain space surface, matter can be completely understood in terms of the electromagnetic field; it has also active and dynamical features. If mass must be understood in terms of the electromagnetic field, mechanics must be derived by electromagnetism theory which becomes the fundamental theory of physics. If mass changes with velocity, Newtonian mechanics must be modified. The new mechanics must have the same invariance group of electromagnetic theory, that is the Lorentz-Poincaré transformation group, according to which must be developed a new relativity principle and a new gravitation theory (even gravitational mass changes with velocity).

From Poincaré’s perspective even gravitation is of electromagnetic origin. However, the new gravitational theory developed by Einstein’s general relativity theory did not consider this idea [19]. David Hilbert, simultaneously with Einstein, developed the same gravitational field equations but starting from the electromagnetic conception of Nature [20].

The electromagnetic conception of Nature to which Poincaré and then Hilbert were related was a new form of a vitalistic conception of Nature, dependent from the already named theology of electromagnetism and theology of Light [21]. Nature was not a machine but a living and animate being.

The relationships between relativity and theology were discussed by Max Jammer and Thomas F. Torrance [22]. However, they did not take into account the differences between the mechanistic and electromagnetic conception of Nature, i.e. between Einstein, Poincaré, or Hilbert’s formulations. Furthermore, my perspective wishes to point out only the historical theological presuppositions that consciously or unconsciously are the basis of the construction of a scientific theory, and not an external aposteriori correlations between science and theology.

Quantum physics itself had its roots in the electromagnetic conception of Nature, in the wave properties of matter [23]: following the first elaboration of the new quantum physics by Werner Heisenberg [24], only electromagnetic variables as the frequency and the intensity of light were measurable quantities at microphysical level, so mechanical variables had to be redefined in terms of electromagnetic observables. No geometric exact representation of matter, motion or light propagation as well as of the evolution of the universe was possible [25]. From this point of view, only Hilbert’s “electromagnetic general relativity” [26], related to an electromagnetic conception of Nature and to a concomitant theology of Light, could be considered as a relational theory of space, time and motion, and a completely non-mechanistic and potentially non-deterministic physical theory which could also overcome the idea of a pre-fixed cosmic and ethical geometrical order.

The most important implication of Einstein/Hilbert’s general relativity theory is not physical but theological and has not yet been understood. The breakdown of Newton’s theory of universal gravitation was the breakdown of Newton’s reformed theology of gravitation as the universal fall due to original sin, according to which there was universal falling: falling matter, falling light. Conversely, in Einstein and Hilbert’s theory, gravity was the very force of Light which gave a curved form to space where matter had to move itself: there was no fall. Curving was not falling. There was no fall at the deepest level of Nature: only life, human life could fall, could deviate from “straightness”.

Consequently, Nature must not be dominated to overcome sin. Reverence for Nature does no longer mean to be slave of matter/flesh or sin, but to correspond freely to the divine revelation of Nature as Light. A “New Alliance” between God, mankind and Nature, a new cosmic and ethic order is in some way implied within the theory that emerges from Einstein and Hilbert’s work. Relativity (as well as quantum physics) is not a mere “physical” theory, but is also a stratified “theological and poetical” way to perceive Nature; or one can better say that Nature is the Light of relativity who shows itself to mankind entangled inquiries.


[1] E. Giannetto, Saggi di storie del pensiero scientifico, Bergamo University Press, Sestante, Bergamo 2005, pp. 15-41.

[2] A. Leroi-Gourhan, Le geste et la parole: I. Techinque et langage; II. La mémoire et les rythmes (Paris : A. Michel, 1964-65), It. transl. by F. Zannino, Il gesto e la parola, voll. I & II (Torino: Einaudi, 1977), vol. I, pp. 221-254; Enrico R. A. Giannetto, Saggi di storie del pensiero scientifico, pp. 15-41.

[3] E. Giannetto, Saggi di storie del pensiero scientifico, pp. 327-349.

[4] E. Giannetto, Saggi di storie del pensiero scientifico, pp. 299-325.

[5] E. Giannetto, Saggi di storie del pensiero scientifico, pp. 299-325.

[6] H. More, The immortality of the soul, so farre forth as it is demonstrable from the knowledge of Nature and the light of reason, London 1669.

[7] C. Howard Hinton, Speculations on the Fourth Dimension – Selected Writings, ed. by Rudolf v. B. Rucker (New York: Dover, 1980); C. Howard Hinton, Scientific Romances, ed. by James Webb (New York: Arno Press, 1976); R. Rucker, The Fourth Dimension. A Guided Tour of the Higher Universes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company); R. v. B. Rucker, Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension (New York: Dover, 1977).

[8] H.G.Wells, The Time Machine, ed. by N. Ruddick (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2001), with extracts of the many relevant papers on this subject.

[9] C. Flammarion, Lumen (Paris: Flammarion, 1872).

[10] P. de la Cotardière and P. Fuentes, Camille Flammarion (Paris: Flammarion, 1994), pp. 270-279; C. Flammarion, Rêves étoilés, 2nd edn. (Paris, Flammarion, 1914).

[11] There are many quotations of Flammarion’s works since the student notebooks until to the epistemological works of Poincaré and a talk given in honour of Flammarion: H. Poincaré, Discours au jubilé de M. Camille Flammarion, in Bulletin de la Société Astronomique de France 26 (1912), pp. 101-103; P. de la Cotardière and P. Fuentes, Camille Flammarion (Paris : Flammarion, 1994), pp. 310-311.

[12] H. Minkowski, ‘Das Relativitätsprinzip’, Lecture delivered on 5 November 1907, Annalen der Physik, IV Folge, v. 47 (1915), pp. 927-938; H. Minkowski, ‘Raum und Zeit’, Lecture delivered before the Versammlung Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte, Cologne, September 21, 1908, Physikalische Zeitschrift, 10 (1909). pp. 104-111.

[13] A.I. Miller, Einstein, Picasso. Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc (New York: Basic Books, 2001), pp. 100-106.

[14] E. Maor, To Infinity and Beyond. A Cultural History of the Infinite (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 127, 172-173.

[15] I.P. Couliano, Out of the World. Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein (Boston: Shambhala, 1991), pp. 12-32; P. Demianovich Ouspensky, Tertium Organum: The Third Canon of Thought; A Key to the Enigmas of the World, trans. by N. Bessaraboff and C. Bragdon (New York: Vintage Books, 1970); P. Demianovich Ouspensky, A New Model of the Universe: Principles of the Psychological Method in Its Applications to Problems of Science, Religion and Art (New York: Vintage Books, 1971); P. Florensky Lo spazio e il tempo nell’arte, trans. by Nicoletta Misler (Milano: Adelphi, 1995), pp. 13-202.

[16] H. Poincaré, ‘On the Foundations of Geometry’, The Monist 9 (1898), pp. 1-43; H. Poincaré, ‘La mesure de temps’, Revue de Métaphysique et Morale, 6 (1898), pp. 1-13; H. Poincaré, ‘Des fondements de la géométrie, à propos d’un livre de M. Russell’, Revue de Métaphysique et Morale, 7 (1899), pp. 251-279; H. Poincaré, ‘La théorie de Lorentz et le principe de réaction’, Arch. Néerl., 5 (1900) pp. 252-278 ; H. Poincaré, La Science et l’Hypothèse (Paris : Flammarion, 1902, 19062); H. Poincaré, ‘L’état actuel et l’avenir de la Physique mathématique’, Bulletin des Sciences Mathematiques, 28 (1904) pp. 302-324; H. Poincaré, ‘Sur la dynamique de l’électron’, Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences, 140 (1905) 1504-1508; E. Giannetto, ‘Henri Poincaré and the rise of special relativity’, Hadronic Journal Supplement, 10 (1995) 365-433; E. Giannetto, ‘Da Bruno ad Einstein’, Nuova Civiltà delle Macchine, 24 n. 3 (2006), pp. 107-137.

[17] H. Poincaré, ‘Sur la dynamique de l’électron’, Rendiconti del Circolo Matematico di Palermo, 21 (1906) pp. 129-176.

[18] A. Einstein, ‘Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper’, Annalen der Physik, 17 (1905) pp. 891-921.

[19] A. Einstein, ‘Die Feldgleichungen der Gravitation’, Königlich Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin), Sitzungsberichte (1915) 844-847.

[20] D. Hilbert, ‘Die Grundlagen der Physik (Erste Mitteilung)’, Nachrichten von der Königlich Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Mathematisch-physikalische Klasse, Berlin (1916) 395-407.

[21] E. Benz, The Theology of Electricity (Allison Park: Pickwick, 1989).

[22] M. Jammer, Einstein and Religion. Physics and Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999); T.F. Torrance, Space, Time and Incarnation (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1969); T.F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1976); T.F. Torrance, The Theology of Light, in Thomas F. Torrance, Christian Theology and Scientific Culture (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1980), pp.75-108.

[23] E. Giannetto, The Electromagnetic Conception of Nature and the Origins of Quantum Physics, in C. Garola, A. Rossi, & Sozzo (eds.), The Foundations of Quantum Mechanics – Historical Analysis and Open Questions (Singapore: World Scientific, 2006), pp. 178-185; E. Giannetto, ‘Poincaré’s Electromagnetic Quantum Mechanics’, Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte Preprint n. 350, vol. I, Berlin 2008, pp. 53-66.

[24] W. Heisenberg, Über quantentheoretische Umdeutung kinematischer und mechanischer Beziehungen, in Zeitschrift für Physik, 33 (1925), p. 879.

[25] E. Giannetto, ‘Il crollo del concetto di spazio-tempo negli sviluppi della fisica quantistica: l’impossibilità di una ricostruzione razionale nomologica del mondo’, in Aspetti epistemologici dello spazio e del tempo, ed. by G. Boniolo (Roma: Borla, 1987), pp. 169-224.

[26] E. Giannetto, Da Bruno ad Einstein, Nuova Civiltà delle Macchine 24 n.3 (2006), pp. 107-137.

[27] I. Prigogine & I. Stengers, La Nouvelle Alliance. Métamorphose de la Science (Paris: Gallimard, 1979); E. Giannetto, Saggi di storie del pensiero scientifico, pp. 477-479.

An extended version of this essay has been published in Toward a Photical Idea of Nature, in E. Agazzi, E. Giannetto. F. Giudice (eds.), Representing Light across Art and Sciences (Göttingen: V & R unipress, 2010), pp. 233-244.