Nov 052009

I sought the fount of fire in hollow reed
Hid privily, a measureless resource
For man, and mighty teacher of all arts

… and I purged
The glancing eye of fire, dim before,
And made its meaning plain. These are my works.

What thou wouldst learn I will make clear to thee,
Not weaving subtleties, but simple sooth
Unfolding as the mouth should speak to friends.
I am Prometheus, giver of fire to mortals.

Aeschylus, Prometheus Unbound

The Fireplace

When a piece of wood burns in a fire, it is not the wood that is “burning”. Not in the sense we might imagine. The hard material we think of when we think of wood is not what is giving off light. Rather, when the molecules of this hard wood stuff starts moving fast enough, they start to break apart.

This is what we see as smoke.

Smoke is the result of carbon materials being vaporized by friction. When wood, for example, has been vaporized in this way, it turns into black char. This is the hard stuff that remains after the wood has been converted to smoke. Actually, the wood has been converted to char + smoke.

So the equation for this is:

wood + friction = char + smoke.

[note: if you are wondering, friction is a result of, and consequence of, heat. Heat is nothing more than speed. Temperature is the (average) speed at which the molecules of a material are moving. This motion creates friction, which results in the release of photons from the disturbed atoms. We can feel the energy of these photons as heat, and see the radiation as infrared light. I have posted a meditation on light and heat here.]

wood + friction = char + smoke.

This can happen with no fire. But where there is smoke, often there is fire, right? Right, but it is not the fire that causes the smoke, but the smoke that causes the fire! The word, “cause” is being used loosely here. More accurately, we should say that it is not the fire that precedes the smoke, but the smoke that precedes the fire.

Ignition occurs when the gases in the smoke undergo a second chemical reaction. The carbon in the gaseous smoke combine (violently) with oxygen in the air. This chemical change creates more heat (because it is a strong, “violent” change) as the carbon-oxygen pair combine forcefully enough that the process “shines”. IN other words, the carbon and oxygen grab onto each other so hard that the motion of their grabbing each other releases visible photons. The marriage of carbon and oxygen is visible to us a shining that we call fire. This shining heat now creates a chain reaction, supplying the energy to keep the first reaction going (wood + heat = smoke + char) which creates more smoke, which is already hot enough that the carbon atoms bond with the oxygen in the air, and again, it is this process of the carbon bonding with oxygen that shines.

The carbon-oxygen reaction shines because it is such a forceful reaction that the heat that it produces is energetic enough to be part of the visible spectrum. Remember, heat radiation, like x ray radiation, and radio wave radiation, is all the same thing, just at different energies. What we see as visible light is just a certain slice, or range, of energies in this continuum of radiation from radio waves to gamma rays.

If our eyes had evolved such that we could see more of this range – say into the infrared energies – we would see each other “burning”, for our bodies continually radiate heat in the infrared range, just as “fire” radiates heat in the “visible” range. When soldiers wear infrared goggles at night, this is what they see: the light that is “burning” off of warm bodies.

In this sense, we are all on fire, as is everything in the universe.

Here is Richard Feyman describing fire. He points out that the substance of a tree is derive mostly from the air, not the ground and that when we burn wood, we are releasing the light of the sun that was put into the tree to begin with

The Sun

What we have described so far is a chemical reaction. Specifically, we have seen how visible light is produced in the form of heat radiation when a piece of wood decomposes to gas and the carbon in these gases combine with oxygen. This process produces visible light, and heat. The heat, if it is not extinguished, will keep these chemical reactions going for as long as there is carbon (in the wood) and oxygen (in the air).

Thus we say the reaction is self-sustaining.

Similarly, what happens in the sun is a self sustaining chain reaction. But it is not a chemical reaction. If we were to think of the sun in the way we think of wood burning, the first question we would run into is, “where is the carbon? Where is the oxygen? How does something burn in the vacuum of empty space, which has no air, and thus no oxygen, to burn?”

Well, it is well known that what happens on the Sun is a thermo-nuclear reaction involving the creation of helium from hydrogen. This is what we call nuclear fusion. And the by-products of this fusion is heat and light.

Fusion happens in the small, dense core of the sun. Thus in this chain reaction, the key component is not heat, but pressure. Pressure creates heat (via friction), but it is the pressure that drives the heat, and thus it is the pressure that keeps the chain reaction going. Well, one of the chain reactions, at least. When the hydrogen fuses, another chain reaction is created that, interestingly, counteracts the pressure reaction.

Therefore, you have two reactions going on: one creates an explosive, outward force while the other creates in implosive, inward force. This is why the sun does not simply fly apart from the billions of nuclear explosions that occur in its core every second.

Yes, I said billions of nuclear explosions that occur in its core every second.

So let’s look at this first chain reaction. Where does all this pressure come from? Oddly, it comes from the density of the core itself. The core of the sun was created when a huge cloud of hydrogen gas began to “collect”. This is odd, because gas does not like to collect. Gas likes to spread out. This is a paradox that has not been fully explained. If gas likes to spread out, what caused it to collect in the first place?

The Gravity Reaction

We know that gas spreads out through space, but what if space was curved? What if space even curved back in on itself? Well, we know that gravity does in fact bend space and we know that matter – even gas – has mass…

Do you see where this is going? Astronomers have concluded that there was so much gas that it bent space, creating a kind of crater, or hole, so deep that the gas could not help but to fall toward the center. Instead of spreading out, as gas is want to do, it started falling into the hole that it had itself created. This “hole” is known by the name of gravity. Despite what you have been told, gravity is not a force. It is not something apart from space, but an attribute of it. Gravity, as Einstein has so masterfully shown to us, is nothing more than those regions of space that are “bent”, “wrinkled”, or “curved.” In other words, gravity is just space itself. If space were a straight line, gravity is simply a bend in the very same line. When space bends, matter, which is always moving, changes direction. This change in direction is called acceleration and the observation and prediction that all matter accelerates in response to these bends, we call “the law of inertia.” Do not ask what causes the bending or why inertia makes matter accelerate, for no one knows. All we can do is observe what happens. No one knows how or why.

So this is what we have to imagine when we think of the hydrogen gas that formed the sun: that there was so much of it in a particular region of space, that it warped space so much that instead of escaping, the gas collected and compacted in on itself. It quite literally created a hole in space that it then proceeded to fall into.

This is amazing if you think about what you know about gas. Can you imagine releasing some helium in a room and seeing it rise up and collect itself into a disk or a sphere? Well this is what happened. In fact it is still happening. In our galaxy, a new sun is born every second.

Yes, I said in our galaxy a new sun is born every second.

The Light Reaction

So, this gravity reaction goes on and on – the more gas that falls into the hole, the deeper, and yet more compact the hole gets, causing more gas to fall in even as the “space” to “fall into” compresses. This process is self-perpetuating; as long as there is gas in the region the hole grows deeper and deeper, and, at the same time, more and more compact.

As this happens, the gas (hydrogen) gets more and more compact, more dense (and therefore hot, due to friction) until one day there is no more room to squeeze together. The gas molecules can’t even wiggle anymore. But the chain reaction continues; more and more gas squeezes into the hole. Eventually, the hydrogen atoms are being pushed into one another with so much pressure that the electrostatic force that keeps the nucleus of the atom intact, finally breaks.

Take a moment to think about this. This is the same electrostatic force we are familiar with. It is what makes our hair stand on end. We see its effects when we run a comb through our hair and see that the comb can disturb paper shreds like a magnet.

You may not realize it, but this force is unimaginably powerful, for when that comb moves those shreds of paper, we realize at the same time that the entire mass of the earth is trying to pull those shreds to itself. In other words, a few free electrons in that comb have the sheer power to overcome the gravitational pull of the entire earth.

The electrostatic force, in other words, is so much stronger than gravity that it takes hugely massive objects to equalize the force of but one single electron.

It is hard to stress the strength of the electrostatic force. If the proton was the size of a grain of sand, the radius of the electron’s orbit would be two miles.

Yes, I said if the proton was the size of a grain of sand, the radius of the electron’s orbit would be two miles!

Can you imagine anything the size of a grain of sand having that kind of power? And to hold something moving so fast as an electron? Think about that. The electron only wants one thing: to go go go at the speed limit of the universe in a straight line. But the proton has some serious mojo over that electron. The electrostatic force is unimaginably powerful stuff. It is so powerful, that despite the fact that enough gas has collected that it has actually bent the universe, the hydrogen proton remains intact. A giant gas cloud 100 million light years wide is crushing space in on itself and but for the sheer power of the electrostatic force, nothing has pushed its way past that single electron whizzing “two miles” around that grain of sand, our beloved hydrogen proton. Outer space itself is collapsing but the inner space between the electron and the proton holds. The electrostatic force pushes back as the universe itself collapses down upon it.

But even the electrostatic force has its limits. It is here, in the core of what is about to become a star where the electrostatic forces of the atom are defeated. The electron barrier surrounding the proton finally fails under the pressure of the curvature of space. Gravity has finally overcome the electron. When this happens, Light escapes from the proton itself in a great explosion that sets of a chain reaction of explosions that continues for tens of millions of years. All that pressure has unleashed something new in the universe.

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
— Yeats, The Second Coming

Where there was darkness, now there is Light; where there was one kind of matter, now another.

Just as wood was chemically converted into char + smoke, our hydrogen atoms have now been converted into helium + Light. The universe is no longer dark.

This is called nuclear fusion.

In this instant atomic fusion, an elemental balance of nature is broken. In the next moment, a new balance of nature is struck. Protons and electrons form a new equilibrium as matter forms new matter and gives birth to Light.

Where we had one grain of sand, now we have two. And Light. Inside the atom, a new perimeter has been formed and new matter is born in the universe. Outside the atom, Light  – previously bound and hidden in the proton, now reveals itself.

Now, imagine that you are one of the atoms sitting next to the atom that was just broken. Suddenly, in addition to all the pressures being applied to your atomic walls by all the other atoms pushing up against you, now your next door neighbor has just exploded with a force so energetic even the electrostatic force of your impenetrable walls are helpless to withstand! And so there is another explosion, which causes another, and another…

This is the ultimate effect of the gravity chain reaction: the birth of a new chain reaction – The Light Reaction. In response to all the inward forces of the accumulating gas, now this violent, outward thrust from our grain of sand; this pulse of Light from the atom. The atoms in the core are now truly at war. Space is pushing in on them and finally, they are pushing back. E=MC2. Anarchy is loosed upon the world.

This new chain reaction of nuclear explosions lights up the heavens. This is the birth of a star, a series of explosions creating new matter + light in a process that is simply unstoppable. This continues until all the hydrogen is fused. Ultimately, this means billions of explosions per second for tens of billions of years – that’s how much gas we are talking about. Hey, it was enough to bend space, it takes a little while just to process its own explosion.

This is what is happening in the Sun – endless nuclear explosions. Again, this great outward thrust of the atom, generated from a great inward push of space. This is why the Sun does not simply fly apart. The pushing out and the pushing in are equalized.


After careful examination, we see that the sun and all the stars are really atomic phenomena; we see that light is bound up in matter, and released by matter. In fact, what we find throughout all phenomena of the universe is simply this: that light is constantly being released and reabsorbed, whether in the proton, or the electron; whether in atomic or molecular reactions. In all cases, matter is being transformed into energy and that energy, Light, in turn, transforms the matter around it. This process of material transformation into Light, this “interaction of light with matter,” is all there is. All material phenomena in the universe from the big bang to the creation of this sentence is nothing more than this process of light escaping from and being absorbed again by matter. This is what is beneath all of physics and chemistry. We know of nothing in the universe that is not derived from this process of Light being transformed into matter and back to Light again. Think about that. You may think this is an overstatement, an exaggeration.

It.. is.. not. This is what we call physics. Welcome to the mystery.

So, in the atom, we find an equilibrium similar to what we have described as the two chain reactions in the sun: this tremendous force that is pushing outward, perfectly equalized by a tremendous force pulling inward. Matter and Energy are similarly related in an eternal dance, this equilibrium: matter as energy confined, energy chasing its tail, as it were.

When this tail-chasing of the energy within the atom is released – when what has been until now confined, is no longer..

From matter: light.

From light: life.

Yes, I said life.

The source of energy that makes all life possible is the photon that the sun releases, which falls to earth. Plants transform these photons into matter in a process called photosynthesis, then animals transform this matter back into photons through digestion, where the cells break the matter of the plants into pieces, which releases more photons, which the cells use to move and act and create more matter. In other words, the light from the sun literally becomes trapped in matter again through the photosynthesis of plants. This light is released again in the cell walls and used to move the cell parts around to create new matter and this is what life is: a highly sophisticated, complex, creative use of light.

Destruction, annihilation, death; then creation, release, birth.

The QED shows us that all material phenomena of the universe from the big bang to the creation of this sentence can be summed up by the physics of light interacting with matter. Which is to say light being emitted and absorbed by matter – again and again and again in infintely varied combinations.

Folks, that’s all there is. If we but understood how light, matter and space worked, we would have a theory of everything. For it is matter that bends space, which in turn, accelerates matter, which in turn creates light… and from light: life.


Gravity is the only force in the universe for which we have NO model to explain. We may not fully understand the true essence of the other forces (we have no theory to explain the mechanism of how light moves through the universe), but we know enough about them to play with them. Not so with gravity. It simply is. None of its secrets have been cracked. All we can do is observe how it behaves. We fare only slightly better with light, although it’s essential secret is so secret that physicists have declared that the workings of it fall outside the realm of physics. Literally. Physics has given up trying to explain light. For the physicist, explaining light is a religious, not scientific, feat.

Fire in the Sun?

To review: The difference between the fire in your fireplace and the “fire” of the sun is that one is a chemical reaction, and the other, an atomic reaction. The first is a rearrangement of molecules, the other a rearrangement of atoms. One reaction happens outside the nucleus as electrons rearrange (we call this chemistry), the other happens inside the nucleus as protons rearrange; we call this nuclear fusion.

related posts: heat and light

Richard Feynman explaining fire

 Posted by at 12:11 pm

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