Oh, What a Tangled Web of Electrons

For a fuller perspective on the life and times of the great Catherine of Siena – who seems to grow in my own estimation the more I read of her – peruse this reflection by Father Thomas McDermott, a Dominican, like Catherine. Schisms, anti-popes, absent popes, sin, clerical concubinage, abuse, disbelief, apostasy, and the Black Death which wiped out most of Europe, killing four-fifths of the Catherine’s native Siena. These were just part of the evils she had to face, and help heal in a disfigured Church. As Father puts it:

Catherine imagines the Church as a beautiful maiden whose face has been pelted and besmirched by the sins of the Church’s mortal members. Catherine often speaks of sin as leprosy on the face of the Church. It would never have occurred to her to leave the Bride of Christ because of te sins of humanity. For her, the Church is infinitely more than a mere human institution.

Just so. Well  worth a read to put things in perspective.

This is the official birthday of the ‘World Wide Web’, a creation attributed primarily to Timothy Berners-Lee, who wrote the code for the program by which computers across the world could be connected in a web. Like all technology, the web may used for good or ill, and opinions abound to which end of this spectrum it tends. Would we be better off without the internet? For those readers of a certain age, was life better before 1993? Or 1997 or so when the web became widespread amongst the common man?

On that note, I thought we would add that this is also the birthday of the discovery of the humble little electron by physicist J.J. Thomson in 1897, that the ‘atom’ was not a unitary blob of indiscriminate ‘matter’, but in fact made of parts, and one part of it was a negatively-charged particle which Thomson dubbed ‘corpuscles’, but which were soon called ‘electrons’, Greek for ‘amber’, which, besides preserving the DNA of dinosaurs, also readily takes an static charge. Thomson thought of them as embedded in the atom like raisins in a plumb pudding, but it was soon discovered, by Ernest Rutherford, Thomsons’ pupil, that they in fact orbited a very tiny nucleus, like planets around the Sun (although that model is itself quite imperfect). The electron is tiny, 1/1836 the mass of a proton, which means it is almost not there at all, and would have no mass at all if it were to stop moving (which it does, very fast, about 1370 miles per second, about 1% of the speed of light, quick enough to get around the world in about 18 seconds).

Oh, but what power this little dynamo has! It was soon discovered that when harnessed and directed – trillions of them moving in unison in electric currents – they could provide great amounts of energy: Electro-magnetic motors now power much of our world. As well, they can also convey a near-infinite amount of information, configured eventually onto the screens of our computers, phones and tablets, which brings us all the way back to the web.

Never mind the web, some say the world better off without electricity, and the artificial light and noise it provides. Would we rather live in 1330 with Saint Catherine, or 2021? Was a society more attuned to natural light more, well, natural and harmonious? Or was life not only nasty, brutish and short, but also sort of boring? For when the darkness descended, there was not all that much to do. Of course, this might lend itself to a deeper prayer life, even a sort of mysticism, but we must also admit that the artificial – which simply means made by our art (and science) – has its place. We can listen to symphonies, podcasts, read all the great works of literature, and admire all the art and architecture of genius.

But there is a wisdom in always bringing things back to the human level, to ourselves, here and now, in our incarnational being, and our relations with each other and with God. Is it better to listen to a violin concerto on the radio (via electrons!), or to hear one played live? Or, better yet, to play one ourselves, even if it be not a concerto, but a simpler Irish jig?

All have their benefits, and whatever answers we give, remember that God has given us both nature, as well as art and technology, and it is up to us to use all things well, in accordance with the will of God, good and acceptable and perfect.