Twenty nineteen has been a banner year for glimpses at the elusive and previously unseen. Earlier this year, we were treated to our first direct view of an actual black hole (as opposed to the physically accurate but fully simulated one in Interstellar a few years back). More recently, we saw the first images of quantum entanglement, the first view of molecules changing shapes as a result of gaining or losing electrons, and rare footage of a giant squid (only the second such video). We gain a lot of information about the world around us visually. So when we cannot see something readily, we often work hard to find a way to represent the object or entity or concept visually. That even goes for nonspatial entities like calendars or organizational charts or infographics which have no natural visual form. At least particles and black holes and squids are physical and occupy space.
Still, not all of these images are equally straightforward in their representation. The squid video is relatively simple footage, capturing essentially what you would have seen with your eyes if you were diving in the right place at the right time. The shifting molecules were visualized with an atomic force microscope, which means some rendering is required to transform the force measurements collected by the microscope into an image; the image is more like a data plot than a photograph. The image of a black hole is an even more complex rendering of a substantial quantity of data. In both cases there is a fairly direct correspondence to something physical, but the physical object itself does not emit light that we can capture on film. The quantum entanglement image is actually based on light exposure, but composited from multiple trials of an experiment. And there is ambiguity about whether it actually shows entanglement, as only one of each pair of entangled photons wound up contributing directly to the image. The pattern of photons in the image is influenced by entanglement, but does it represent entanglement itself?
Of course, René Magritte would like to remind us that the image can only ever be a representation at best and never the thing itself. Thus care is always warranted when interpreting images, particularly one-of-a-kind images of objects or scenes or phenomena for which we have no in-person experience. Not to mention that what we experience is the image generated by our minds, so Magritte’s caution still applies. But he was not the first to have such concerns. The Bible warns of conflating the image with what it represents at least as early as the story of the Israelites in the wilderness in Exodus. God does not occupy space physically (at least not until the incarnation). But humans then desired visual representation to help with understanding just like we do now. So a clear tension existed and still exists. I can’t relieve that tension for you; I doubt I should even if I could. I can suggest that tension is something we can be reminded of every time we see a new attempt to visualize what we have never seen before.
Did you see last week’s post about the forthcoming science & faith discussion guide? If not, give it a look. The book was originally funded by a STEAM grant; you can hear more about the STEAM (Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries) on a recent episode of the BioLogos podcast Language of God.