The Speed of Enlightenment

One of the consequences of Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity is that no material object can move faster than the speed of light in empty space. There is a speed-limit to how fast particles can move. It’s very high – about 300,000,000 meters per second. We don’t have to worry about it much when driving around town. An average jet plane can travel at 500 miles per hour, which is 223 meters per second. This seems like glacial movement compared to light. Here’s another perspective: the distance from where I live now to my home town is about 5000 miles. When I travel home, it takes me close to 24 hours, from door to door. Light could travel the same distance in 0.03 seconds.

The speed of light is a quick brown fox. The speed of enlightenment? A different beast altogether.

I’ve felt a big contrast this year between the fast-paced learning of the undergraduates I work with and my own realization of just how slowly deeper understanding evolves. While I would be hard-pressed to find a physicist who could honestly claim to appreciate all the subtleties of a topic like fluid dynamics in a week, the students had about a week to be introduced to the subject, absorb as much as they could, attempt some challenging problems, and move on to another equally complex topic. An introduction composed of shock and awe? Perhaps.

I’ve come to believe that learning requires a willing suspension of disbelief when we first encounter something so new we even struggle to pronounce the vocabulary, let alone string together sentences. Those initial exposures are an exercise with equal parts in faith and reason. We need to have more than just a passing acquaintance with not knowing, with the discomfort of not having all the pieces, with the incomplete picture made by pieces we do have.

Maybe it’s like walking a very faint path, or creating the path, towards an idea. And on the first voyage, we might trip in the mud or get caught in a patch of nettles, but keep forging ahead. Next time, we mutter to ourselves, next time we’ll manage that bog a bit better.  And we carry on. We might not even know when we’ve reached the idea. Sometimes we pass it, not recognizing a summit, thinking it was just an accident of topology. Learning is like that: first drafts, first readings of a poem, first attempts at solving a problem. The ‘firstness’ of trailblazing is a confusing mess! As important as a compass is a tolerance for ambiguity.

But then we go back and do it again. We revise, we reread, we try to hang new ideas on old structures of understanding. Sometimes the ideas fit. Sometimes they end up toppling the old edifices. So we rebuild. Some landscapes of ideas we leave unexplored for years after an initial youthful foray. But eventually, we return and walk the path again. And again. And again. Each time with surer steps and fewer nettles. A picture, complemented by all our other journeys and paths, gradually emerges. It arises at the speed of enlightenment.

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