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Seeing and Knowing

A traveler puts his head under the edge of the firmament in the original (1888) printing of the Flammarion wood engraving; by an unknown artist but apparently first appearing in Camille Flammarion's 1888 book, L'atmosphère : météorologie populaire (The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology).

by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson September 26–October 2: Isaiah 50–57

Probably the most famous saying concerning the relationship between God’s knowledge and our knowledge is found in Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Then we are told in Isaiah 60:1-5 of the relationship between light and seeing: “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thine eyes round about, and see: all they gather themselves together, they come to thee: thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side. Then thou shalt see, and flow together, and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee.”

We can only see anything because of light – in darkness, there is no vision. We either see objects that emit light, such as the sun and stars, flames, incandescent lights, fluorescent lights, LEDs, for example; or objects that reflect light, which is most everything else. We come to understand the world and universe around us because of what we see. Yet our vision is limited.

In my book, The Infinite Creation: Unifying Science and Latter-Day Saint Theology (pp. 87-90), I have discussed the relationship between light, glass, and seeing:

In his first epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul stated, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) The context of Paul’s statement can be appreciated, at least in part, by what he had said a few verses earlier in that epistle, “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10)If we put Paul’s statement into a more modern interpretation, what he was saying might be viewed as, “At present, our knowledge is imperfect, but some day our knowledge will be much more complete.” (This interpretation is using one definition of perfect as complete.)

We still often quote Paul’s statement to remind us that we are a very long way from knowing everything, from having a perfect knowledge, from knowing what God knows. None-the-less, people have been polishing glass for nearly two thousand years since Paul made his famous statement, and we have learned a thing or two since then. Sometimes, in the twenty-first century, it is difficult for us to appreciate just how much people didn’t know two thousand years ago.

Take, for example, the glass to which Paul referred. Paul’s letters were written in Koine, or Hellenistic, Greek. The Greek word for glass is hýalos, meaning a transparent or see-through stone. So the closest the Greek language came to describing glass was as a clear stone – i.e. quartz, which is usually translucent rather than transparent. Thus their vision through quartz was far from perfect. The Romans learned glass-making from the Greeks, but apparently, didn’t even have a name for glass (vitrum) until the first century AD. Early Roman glass was employed mainly for items like drinking vessels and mosaic tiles, although some small amounts of window glass were produced. Most of this early glass was intensely colored, but during the first century AD, glass blowing and colorless or “aqua” glass were introduced. Most of this colorless glass, like the native quartz, was more translucent than transparent, and window glass was produced in very small pieces and provided a distorted image at best. Early glass was considered a luxury item, was very expensive, and was not readily available. It is certainly possible that the “glass” to which Paul referred was a colored glass vessel rather than a window. He would have been amazed at the modern perfection of the glass industry allowing for the construction of entire buildings facades of perfectly clear glass.1

Blown plate window glass was manufactured as early as the fourteenth century, but still emerged as wavy glass in relatively small pieces and quantities. According to an anonymous 1899 Scientific American review, mirrors produced by this technique were “…good for nothing but reflecting the shaggy faces of antiquarians.” Modern, fully transparent glass produced by casting, or pouring plate glass was invented in France in 1688 by Louis Lucas de Nehou and Abraham Thevart.2

About the same time that plate glass was being invented, Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek took the concept of seeing through glass to a whole new level, revealing a world unimagined by any previous generation. Leeuwenhoek was a Dutch draper who started making magnifying lenses to better visualize the weave in his draperies. By the 1670s, he had perfected lens polishing to the point where he could see what is now called microscopic life with his single-lens microscope. Leeuwenhoek called the tiny creatures that he discovered, moving about, seemingly everywhere, animalcules. Leeuwenhoek also was the first to discover bacteria, spermatozoa, muscle fibers, red blood cells, and blood flow through capillaries.3

Perhaps Leeuwenhoek’s most famous statement came in 1674, after he had examined a drop of lake water,

“I now saw very plainly that these were little eels, or worms, lying all huddled up together and wriggling just as if you saw, with the naked eye, a whole tubful of little eels and water, with the eels squirming among one another; and the whole water seemed to be alive with these multifarious animalcules.

This was for me, among all the marvels that I have discovered in nature, the most marvelous of all; and I must say, for my part, that no more pleasant sight has every yet come before my eyes that these many thousand of living creatures seen all alive in a little drop of water, moving among one another, each several creature having its own proper motion.”4

A seventeenth-century British contemporary of Leeuwenhoek, Robert Hooke, turned his single-lens microscope to this “unseen” world and published his meticulously illustrated book, Micrographia, in 1665, which became an overnight sensation. Hooke described this new microscopic world, including the tiny hairs of a stinging nettle, a flea, and the little honeycomb-shaped rooms of a section of cork, which he called cells.4

Two lens-makers, Zacharias Jansen and his father, Hans, put lenses into the ends of a tube in 1595 and invented the compound microscope.5 But the compound microscope did not come into practical use until Joseph Lister solved the problem of spherical aberration (light bending at different angles depending on where it passes through the lens) in 1830 by placing lenses at precise distances from each other.4 By Lister’s advancement, the light microscope was becoming perfected – in a very real sense of Paul’s seeing through a glass. Today, thanks to the work of inventors and manufacturers such as Ernst Leitz, Carl Zeiss, and others, the variety of modern light microscopes has reached a level of perfection previously unimagined.4

But, as it turns out, not even Paul, who could only “…prophesy in part,” (1 Corinthians 13:9) knew that glass and light have their limitations when it comes to seeing the microscopic world. Light is limited by its wavelength to magnify only objects of 0.2 microns or larger (500x to 1000x magnification; a human cell is around 7-20 microns across). In 1931, Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska invented the electron microscope, in which electrons, focused by magnets, are either passed through (transmission electron microscope, TEM) or bounced off the surface (scanning electron microscope, SEM) of specially prepared specimens. TEMs can magnify an object up to two million times its actual size.6

Modern microscopic research has revealed that each person has around 30-35 trillion (3 x 1013) human cells in his or her body.7 That means that there are over 100 times as many cells in a single human being than there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy (200 billion; 2 x 1011).8 You have more cells in your little finger than there are visible stars in the night sky (10,000). Equally amazing, it turns out that we each carry around about as many bacterial cells as human cells.7 Most of the bacterial cells we transport are not harmful; on the contrary, many are critical to normal health. To boggle the mind even farther, each cell contains around 100 trillion atoms.9 Taken all together, each individual person carries around over 10,000 times more atoms than there are stars in the known universe. The complexity of the unseen world is almost incomprehensible, yet it is very real. (The Infinite Creation: Unifying Science and Latter-Day Saint Theology, pp. 87-90).

As a result of our amazing progress, we are now much closer to knowing God’s thoughts and ways than was Isaiah some 2800 years ago. But how much closer? Lest we allow pride to consume our thoughts and believe we have constructed a tower nearly to heaven, let’s put our current knowledge into perspective.

I have pointed out in my book, The Infinite Creation, that we now think there is much more to the universe than we can see:

As it turns out, we have learned in the past half century that there is a vast amount of very unusual matter and energy out there in the universe, about which we know little or nothing. That additional matter, called dark matter, is apparently not comprised of elements as is “regular” matter, but is made of something else – something we don’t as yet know anything about. Is it possible that dark matter is not a single entity, but could be comprised of some sort of “elements” that may be organized into a periodic table of its own? If visible matter accounts for only a tiny fraction of the matter proposed by science, is it possible that there may be even more matter in the universe than just visible matter and dark matter?

In 1901, at a meeting of the British Science Association in Glasgow, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) described the rotation of stars within the Milky Way galaxy. He proposed that the velocity of their rotation required a much greater mass to the galaxy than could be accounted for by the stars we can see in the galaxy.11 Thomson thought those “dark bodies” were “extinct,” burnt out stars, as did Henri Poincaré, who in 1906 coined the term “dark matter,” or “matière obscure” in the original French, to describe them.11 (The Infinite Creation, p 24)

The idea that there were more burned out stars in the universe than visible ones remained barely a footnote in physics textbooks over the next seventy years. Then, in 1976, the whole scientific world was turned upside down, when the American astronomer Vera Rubin published a paper that shattered the existing, comfortable view of the universe. Because most of the stars in spiral galaxies are clustered near the center, astrophysicists assumed that most of the mass – gravity, and dark stars – would be clustered near the center as well. With the mass of the galaxy focused in the center, the speed of stars near the center should be greater than that of stars farther away – similar to Mercury’s speed around the sun being much greater than that of Neptune’s. What Rubin found, however, was that stars in the outer reaches of spiral galaxies were moving just as fast as stars near the center. The implications of this discovery were staggering. Rubin calculated that there was ten times more dark matter associated with each galaxy than visible matter – not inside the galaxy, as was assumed, but surrounding the galaxy like some great halo.12 (The Infinite Creation, p 24-25)

In a speech delivered at Caltech in April 2013, Stephen Hawking stated, “The missing link in cosmology is the nature of dark matter and dark energy.” He further noted that, “normal matter is only 5 percent of the energy density of the known universe; 27 percent is dark matter, 68 percent is dark energy.”4

Estimates of the ratios between normal matter, dark matter, and dark energy tend to vary from year to year, and person to person. Kevin Pimbblet presented a pie chart in a November 2017 review showing that normal matter accounts for less than 4% of the total, dark matter 23%, and dark energy 73%.5 Furthermore, Pimbblet broke down normal matter into free hydrogen and helium (3%), stars (0.5%), neutrinos (0.3%), and everything else in the universe, including our earth and everything on it (0.03%). Therefore, what we can actually see of the universe, including the stars and planets, accounts for only 0.53% of the total universe. (The Infinite Creation, p. 15-16)

That calculation of what portion of the universe we can actually see is based on the notion that the entire universe is composed of just “normal” matter and energy, dark matter, and dark energy. We only know, or think we know, about dark matter because we can detect its gravitational effect on galaxies. What other matter or energy might be in, or around, our universe we haven’t the foggiest idea. God only knows. We may be seeing 0.53% of God’s creations, or, if there is much more out there than meets the eye, we may be seeing only 0.00000053% of God’s creations or less. No matter how we calculate it, we still are a very long way from knowing what God knows.

Trent Dee Stephens, PhD


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