The Golden Sea, and Silver

By J David Liss

I

congregant asked me how I most want to be remembered, as a rabbi or a physicist. “Remembered,” I said, “Why, am I going someplace?”

In truth, for me that question didn’t make sense. I simply answered, “As a husband and a father.”  But I never was one to stick to categories. After my son Mikey died 12 months ago, I started to mix things together even more.

I used to think that the sea was the great body of water that encircled the Earth. As I thought more about the world, I saw the sea as something larger — the atmosphere that contained us all, water and land, living and still. After all, it was deeper than the water and all of us swim through it in one way or another. But now I realize that the true sea is the light that fills all the universe, soaks the spaces between planets. The true sea pours from the sun and all the suns, gold and silver, in all the skies. Molecules of air swim through the sea of light, as do the fractions of water and salt that flow and spray. We are all moving through a sea of light in the high tide of day and low tide of night.

I used to think that God was a being who created the Universe. But the more I studied the equations behind creation, the more I understood the math behind particle physics, I came to understand that God is the Universe. He didn’t create something apart from himself; he is singular, not binary. He cares about us because we are all part of him—all of us—the kings and cats and coelenterates, the vast distances between endless galaxies that move forever from the center yet are still part of the whole, amen.

On Mikey’s last day, we took the long, hard drive to Sloan Kettering. After 15 months, this trip felt a little different. It had taken him two hours to move from his bed to the car in our driveway, he was in that much pain. But he wouldn’t let me call an ambulance. He didn’t want to make a spectacle of his pain.

He didn’t actually pass until the next day. By then, we were all gathered in the hospital. The oncologist showed us the MRI images. We made the decision to end the life support systems that were keeping his heart beating, his lung inflating and sending air to the rest of his body.

The process was quite humane. As they stop the drugs that make his heart work and remove the machine that makes his lungs work, they increase the drugs that suppress pain and anxiety.

His heart stopped and he wasn’t there. But I didn’t see him leave.

How could I have missed it? How could I not see the moment when his soul left, reached my hand out to him, given him my last blessing and received his, tell him that I would see him soon enough, when I joined him in the next life? How would he know what I was feeling?

II

My parents used to gently make fun of me, but with great pride, that I was 37 years old and still in school. Being in the Rabbinate at the same time I was working toward a doctorate in physics took time. But things were on track. Katie and I were married 10 years at that point and both kids were born. Neither Columbia nor Hebrew Union College were charging me tuition, and between Katie’s job, my stipend, and money from our parents we were pretty comfortable.

As I got very close to being both a rabbi and a scientist, my advisors from each program had a heart-to-heart with me that was shockingly similar in a way that still makes me smile. They both said a variation of the same speech.

“Arthur,” said Dr. Smithson, “I couldn’t be more pleased with the final version of your dissertation. The idea of viewing Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, our best evidence of the big bang, through the lens of string theory is daring but has some really interesting points. Your math is good. But, Arty, your descriptive text concerns me. You describe cosmic rays with a prosody that border on poetry, that comes dangerously close to…I’ll just say it, scripture. Frankly, it detracts from the scientific gravitas of your thesis.”

“Ellis, we’ve had this talk before. My rabbinical studies are not getting conflated with my lab work.”

“To me, your thesis reads as if they are.”

“I look at it as if I’m reading two different books at the same time, one poetry, the other prose. I can read two books without confusing them. That’s what I’m doing with my studies.”

“It’s harder to maintain two world views than to read two books.”

“It’s working just fine. My dissertation is good, right?”

“But your future is not clear for me. I don’t believe you’ll ever reach your full potential as a scientist without being fully dedicated to your work. Forgive me for bringing in a reference to the religion I was raised in, but you can’t serve two masters.”

“You can render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto G-d what is his.”

“I should have known better than to quote any religion to you. Okay, I said what was on my chest. I’m going to move your dissertation to the committee.”

“Arthur,” said Rabbi Goldman, “Your thesis is original. I’ve seen close readings of the Genesis creation narratives before, but yours is the first to describe G-d’s creation of the universe as the template for human behavior. It will be controversial but is worth developing. I even like the title, The World to Come from the World that Was. But…

“But?”

“A mathematical approach? I expect to see a well-developed essay and I get tables laid out with phenomena and corresponding consequences.”

“It seemed more efficient to make the point by directly correlating what G-d does on a global level to what the Ethics of the Fathers says is how individuals should behave.”

“And is your job to be efficient, or to be a role model and inspiration for your people?”

“I don’t think those things are incompatible.”

“They’re not, if you don’t make them incompatible. Listen, eventually a committee will have to read your dissertation. Write it in a language they will understand. This is not going to a panel of physicists; it’s going to Rabbis, soon to be your colleagues. Use the language they use out of respect for the job they have to do.”

“That’s a good point.”

“Arty, I’m concerned that you may never reach your full potential as a Rabbi.”

“Why, Steven?”

“Because you have to explain things to yourself before you can explain them to other people, and how you explain things to yourself is inconsistent. You are trying to prove that G-d is true as if he were an equation.”

“I think that things that appear to be contradictory can still be true if we understand the context.”

“You may be right, but we don’t have a view that is big enough to reconcile those contradictions. That’s the role of faith.“

“I don’t think the contradictions run that deep. Sunrise and sunset seem like contradictions. But if you know the world is round, spins, and revolves around the sun, then it isn’t hard to understand that we’re just repeating the same view of the same phenomena.”

“Of course you use a scientific analogy. But there are things that cannot be explained by equations because they are not math problems. But very well, scientist-rabbi, let’s figure out how to change your charts and tables to something people will actually want to read.”

III

How could I not see the moment when his soul left him? How could I not see the moment when Mikey left me?

I believed. I believed he had not left me for good. And I believed that I could see that moment.

I had been following the work of Lene Vestergaard Hau, the Harvard physicist who had frozen rays of light so cold that it turned into matter. She could take light from a given moment and preserve it, release it later to illuminate a point from the past. Like a child capturing a firefly and putting it in a jar, she could hold light in her hand and own it.

It was time for me to leave the holy sanctuary and return to the laboratory. I would capture the light from Mikey’s last hour, in his hospital room at Sloan Kettering. I would analyze every photon of that light, across every spectrum, until I found the shape and shadow of my son’s soul. Then I would freeze that image and know, know beyond doubting, that Mikey’s soul was in the light.

For the senior rabbi of a Manhattan congregation to arrange a six-month leave of absence is usually as complicated as the most difficult physics problem. At least, it is unless the leave involves the loss of a child. Then the rules are suspended. There’s a Yiddish word that transliterates as rachmones, roughly meaning empathy, understanding, sympathy, pity, all rolled up into one. I would sometimes say to my more judgmental congregants, ‘In matters of charity, rachmones over rules.’

Katie was more of a barrier. “Stop it, Arthur. A leave is a good idea for both of us. We need some time to regroup. But you shouldn’t be working this out in the lab. It will only delay getting where we both have to be.”

She was wrong, though. I wasn’t going to move on without doing something. And then I realized she might be right about at least one thing.

I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for by examining Mikey’s hospital room. There was no way that I could recapture the light at the moment he died. That light had left the Earth months ago; it could never be reclaimed.

But I had to do something.

Professor Hau’s work gave me a direction I had not thought of before. I was expert in the field of cosmic rays, but I had not thought to freeze them the way Professor Hau had frozen visible light. If I could stop the motion of ancient cosmic rays, I could convert the microwaves into visible light. If I did that, I would see the universe at the moment of creation. I would see the face of G-d.

Such ancient cosmic rays are not common, but they are ambient throughout the cosmos and can be located. Controlling their speed and shape, their frequency and wavelength, would allow me to manipulate them into visible light.

Why did I want to see the face of G-d?

If I could see his face, I would see reality. Then I would be able to see Mikey again, for he is still here, only someplace that I simply cannot perceive.

Ellis Smithson, now chairman of physics, was thrilled that I was returning to the lab to work with primordial cosmic rays. I was still on the review board for several physics journals and served on a doctoral committee every other year as a favor to Ellis. He had come to Mikey’s funeral. He thought a return to the lab was how I was dealing with the grief, and he was right. He may have believed that I was turning back to science because faith had failed me. Nothing could be further from the truth. I never saw faith and science as incompatible and I finally had a research problem that brought them both together. Partly out of faith in me, and partly out of, well… charity, he absorbed the cost of the research into the departmental budget.

The part that would take the longest was locating the cosmic rays. I had come up with a method for capturing them, using magnetic fields to corral the radiation into the freezing chamber. It was a waiting game.

Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation—cosmic rays—are the oldest thing in the cosmos. The cosmos. The universe. The multiverse. I thought about the languages I knew. Of course, they all had a word that defined the place we exist. But the old words had a common history. The Earth, first just the dirt we scratched for food; then the entire world upon which we walked, and then sailed; then the concept of all that was contained in creation, Ha Olam, in Hebrew. Cosmic rays shone upon it all since the very first day. Interestingly, the oldest word for man in the Hebrew language—Adam—also translates as red clay. Man and his universe are dirt, but filled with the divine light. There is much that seems contradictory; but there are surely no contradictions.

Light as old as the cosmos doesn’t flit in a straight line at 186,000 miles per second. It is subtle. Capturing that old energy would require patience and cunning.

When the sensor alert went off, I knew the capture mechanism had been triggered and walked from our apartment to the lab. Cosmic rays filled the device, which I called the box.

I had to manipulate the magnetic fields to shape the frozen nitrogen atoms that held the cosmic microwaves. I would change their shape and speed to turn them into visible light, and project that light on to a special screen. This was a double challenge. My math had to be perfect. And I had to work the controls of the magnetic field with the precision of a conductor leading an orchestra, the confidence of a flutist charming the python that is inches from his face.

Microwaves aren’t supposed to make a noise. So, what was that sound that I was hearing from inside the box?

It was a single note of music.

I knew it.

It was the first note of the first prayer we sing on the holiest night of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It was the first note of Kol Nidre, All Hear, the deep, soul-stirring moment when we repent and ask for forgiveness.

It’s the prayer we sing to tell all our own failures, our lack of faith and trust and honesty; the prayer that tells all the world we ask to be forgiven and makes clear why we need to be forgiven. This is the sound of a cello in the vacuum of space. I don’t need to be told there is no sound in a vacuum; I’m a physicist. There are more ways of hearing than through the ears. That note sounded from the box, and I knew it had to be my imagination and I thanked G-d for this holy moment in which my mind could meld my sadness and my ambition and my desperate need to see Mikey again.

Forgive me G-d, my ambition.

I shortened the wavelength of the microwaves, speeded up their frequency. My sensors crept to the moment when the cosmic rays reached the status of visible light. Optical fiber connected the box to a liquid crystal screen. The screen began to glow. Light that was 11 billion years old, that illuminated the universe as it was born, flowed over the glass fiber. But somehow, the cosmic rays weren’t projecting on the screen as they were supposed to, but filling the room. It was all around me. The lab was bathed in rich golden light. Shot through the golden light were threads of bright silver. They seemed to move through the gold at different speeds and with slightly different motions. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing, though it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever looked at.

Inexplicably, the silver threads seemed to head toward me, circle me, then swim away and let others take their place. This was electromagnetic energy, yet it seemed to me that the light moved in purposeful ways, particularly the shining silver threads. I never wanted it to stop. The light filled me. I breathed it in and the gold and silver filled my lungs, infused into my blood, entered into my brain. I began to speed up. The universe was rushing away from the center. But the center was everywhere. Everything was exploding away from everything else and I was pushed along with the light, exploding out, becoming the source material for what would evolve into everything. The motion was overwhelming, sickening. I began to scream, but the sound that came out was a single note, the deep, resonant first note of the prayer, All Hear, Kol Nidre. My screaming was the cello that accompanied creation. All hear! The universe has been created and I have sinned. I have sinned the sins of pride and despair. Oh G-d forgive me the search for Mikey’s soul, for your face when you began Time and Space. And as I screamed and prayed in a single note, it seemed to me that one of the silver threads circled my head, entered my left pupil. Vision stopped. Mercy enters through the eyes.

As the radiation left the box, it started to slow down and convert back from visible light to microwave energy. The gold and silver dissipated. I was in the lab. My eyes filled with darkness and I could not see. I feared blindness. I sat for a long time, although I don’t know how long. Eventually I was able to see again, though ever since, my eyes have been very light sensitive and I typically wear sunglasses.

Ellis Smithson was disappointed when I told him I would be returning to my congregation. He had applauded the idea of freezing Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Although my experiment hadn’t yielded useful data, he thought that visible light was the wrong conversion unit and that if we focused on generating the extremes of radio waves and gamma rays, we could learn enormous amounts about the big bang. He thought the fact that my eyesight had been affected was scaring me into returning to religion. Again, in a sense he was right.

God may be singular, but the best I can understand is binary. It has to be enough to know there is a sea of light, a sea of gold. And bright beams of silver swim through that golden sea. What it means, I will have to take on faith.

 

——————–

In 1984 J David Liss received an MFA from Brooklyn College. Trained in writing and inclined to politics, he became a speechwriter, then a lobbyist. In the past 30 years, Liss has worked in corporate, academic, and healthcare centers and all his work has been touched by literature (he likes to think). His prose has been published in “Inscape,” “The MacGuffin,” “Lake Effect,” “Between the Lines,” “Adelaide,” and others. He also writes and publishes poetry.


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