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Divine Light? A new book seeks God in the details of quantum physics 02/28/04 DALE SHORT, Contributing Writer From Our Advertiser "If this light bothers you, we can sit somewhere else," Lee Baumann tells me. We've just settled onto the couch of his suburban living room, and the big picture window is blazing with late-afternoon sunshine. "Light is fine with me," I tell him. And because light is generally no big deal, neither of us realizes the irony of the exchange. The premise of Baumann's new book is that light is a big deal. In fact, he asks, what if light is... quite literally... God? On first approach, the idea sounds like the kind of musing that rises with the smoke of a hookah at a late-night gathering of grad students convened in a shabby apartment to debate the mysteries of the universe. Which is why, Baumann explains, he's spent 20 years assembling his evidence: experiments in quantum physics textbooks, and quotes from some of the great scientific minds of our time. The result is the book God at the Speed of Light: The Melding of Science and Spirituality. The concept is spurring discussion on Internet boards and (by sheer chance, according to the author) has even infiltrated Hollywood. The director of the network TV series Joan of Arcadia credits Baumann's book as one of a handful that influenced her concept of the show: a modern takeoff on the Joan of Arc story, about a small-town teenage girl who is regularly visited by God. How did Baumann arrive at his God-as-light theory? In a word, slowly. "I grew up in a fundamentalist church," he says, "but in childhood I had some experiences that started me questioning the idea of a higher intelligence, and in college I questioned it even more." Baumann is a trim, 40-ish man with graying hair and a short beard, and the cadences of his speech sound, not like a preacher, but rather a physician or teacher, both of which he happens to be. He left private practice to work as a corporate consultant in the medical field. "By the time I began my clinical practice, I was definitely a religious skeptic. But over the years, when I'd read books about physics and about near-death experiences, I kept pulling out all these spiritual or supernatural elements, trying to classify them, which eventually led to writing the book." In a nutshell, Baumann's argument deals with what he calls "the three omni's": "Light has been proven to be omnipresent, which means it's everywhere in the universe at once. And as an entity for which time doesn't exist, light is omniscient because it's aware of everything in past, present and future. "For the third part, light's omnipotence, I have to take physicists at their word because it's a very complex concept. But basically, when scientists try to measure the energy levels of electrons or atoms, they come up with infinities, which makes the equation meaningless. "They have to perform what Stephen Hawking calls a 'mathematical trick' to eliminate the infinity aspect and let the equation work. The technique is called 're-normalization.' You can find out more about it on the Internet, but basically it means that light appears to have infinite energy. "And of course, omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence are the same qualities that we use to describe a supreme being. Add the fact that people who undergo near-death experiences repeatedly experience the sensation of entering into a great light, and the concept is just very convincing for me. Very logical." This is probably a good time for a brief public service message, for readers who are over 40: If you haven't kept up closely with developments in science since you finished school, your concept of how the universe works is as obsolete as the eight-track tape and the vacuum tube. The orderly cosmos described in our old science textbooks was the brainchild of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), famous deviser of the theory of gravity (apple falling from tree, etc.) and father of the many universal laws that proceeded from it. Today's textbooks refer to his immensely influential view of things as "the Newtonian universe." Think of that system as a place for every galaxy, and every galaxy in its place. But then came the 20th century, which gave us Albert Einstein and ushered in the branch of physics known as quantum mechanics. Einstein and his colleagues made literally earth-shaking discoveries that (a) brought us atomic weapons, and (b) poked Newton's theories full of black holes. The same mathematical formula that made possible Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed us a drastically revised world that, at the level of the atom, is all but incomprehensible to a logical mind. In this new universe, order and symmetry and the neat proofs of geometry are, it turns out, not the rule but the exception. Light and matter coexist, uneasily, with pockets of anti-matter so dense they consume even light rays into their black maw. The very unpredictability of physical events has become its own branch of science, known as "chaos theory," and detailed for the lay reader in James Gleick's popular book Chaos. This frightening and confusing universe is not some random speculation, Baumann emphasizes, but is drawn from the known facts as the world's leading experts now understand them. "I admit, the concepts are so far out they don't make any sense," he says. "So a little humility goes a long way, for all of us. You always have to be prepared to change your hypotheses. But the main concepts have been accepted now for decades, and this is the best knowledge we have." The notion of light being "aware" of anything, much less the future, sounds to the skeptic like a touchy-feely, New Age invention. But it's proven scientific fact. Baumann's book gives an overview of two historic physics experiments performed to determine the nature of light. One, the "double slit" experiment, proved that light waves behave differently when they're being studied than they do in isolation. The other, known as the "quantum eraser," went a step further, showing that light waves can actually anticipate future experiments and alter their behavior accordingly, "which, from a Newtonian standpoint," Baumann adds, "is something that could never, ever occur." The larger implications of light's metaphysical shenanigans are even more mind-boggling. In God at the Speed of Light, Baumann introduces the concept with an analogy from physicist Nick Herbert: One of the main quantum facts of life is that we radically change whatever we observe. Legendary King Midas never knew the feel of silk or a human hand after everything he touched turned to gold. Humans are stuck in a similar Midas-like predicament: we can't directly experience the true texture of reality because everything we touch turns to matter. In other words, our everyday lives are technically an illusion. The objects and surfaces that we perceive as real are only the temporary intersection of our consciousness with the "true" universe, made entirely of energy. "Which raises the question of this wooden floor," Baumann adds, tapping it with his heel. "If we weren't here looking at it, would this floor still exist? Well, it would, but it exists only as a nebulous, ill-defined mass of wave forms. It's not until some type of measurement or observation occurs, and you have what's called 'the collapse of the wave function,' that the nebulous mass of waves solidify into concrete, particulate matter." Likewise, Baumann had no idea that the publication of his book (by the A.R.E. Press, which stands for Association for Research and Enlightenment, part of a Virginia foundation honoring the work of the famous clairvoyant Edgar Cayce) had solidified into the consciousness of a TV mogul until he was searching the Internet last fall for mentions of God at the Speed of Light. One of the Google hits was the text of an interview with Barbara Hall, a Hollywood insider best known for her role in creating such shows as E.R., Chicago Hope, and Northern Exposure, promoting her new TV series Joan of Arcadia. "I was totally blown over," Baumann recalls. "She named my book as one of a few that had helped inspire her to create the new series. Since then, things have just gone wild with the book's reception. It's been great." He makes it a point to catch every episode of Joan, and so far he's impressed: "It's great family entertainment, and it has a good spiritual basis, good values. And of course, the actors are phenomenal - Mary Steenburgen, Joe Mantegna, and all the rest. "I think there's really been a hunger for spiritual subjects since 9-11," Baumann says. "People are viewing their priorities in a new light. If they weren't questioning their lives before, they began to when they saw the scope of that tragedy. Why would a loving God allow something like this to happen?" But Baumann's concept of God as omnipresent, familiar light which, at the moment of death, steers our true path home to the afterlife raises troubling questions of its own. Such as: If a tunnel of light is the typical near-death experience, what do blind people see when they die? Baumann doesn't hesitate. "There's a writer named Kevin Williams, who's compiled an extensive collection of case histories on his website neardeath.com, and it turns out that blind people see light, just as sighted people do." So if light is God, why does too much God give us skin cancer? This time, Baumann hesitates. "Good question. Light definitely has destructive properties, especially the ultraviolet spectrum, which is part of light," he says. "On the other hand, lasers are a form of light too, and they're used in medicine today to destroy those same kinds of cancerous growths. I don't know. It's hard for me to relate destructive qualities to a loving God." And perhaps the biggest question of all: if light actually represents good and darkness represents evil, what about recent data that suggests the universe has far more dark material than light? Is goodness, by definition, a losing battle? "Another excellent question," Baumann says. "I'm still struggling with that. One thing I've found fascinating is that scientists have examined regions of space that are total darkness in a total vacuum, and they've found that each cubic meter of darkness contains more than 400 million photons. They're non-visible photons, electromagnetic radiation. But they're light particles still, in total darkness. "Could black holes be the evil of the universe? It's an interesting theory, but obviously nobody has the answer. I suspect it's just a matter of time until someone finds sound scientific answers to that. But right now, it's just speculation." A typical audience at one of Baumann's lectures on the subject, these days, is composed of some true believers who share with him, afterward, their own near-death experiences - as well as some true skeptics, who tell him he makes some interesting points but they can't quite buy his theory. "That's fine," he says. "They're in the same place I was, many years ago. I mean, most of these physics concepts are so unbelievable that no rational human being can accept them, the first time around. I reviewed some of these experiments thoroughly, 15 or 20 times, before I finally understood what the ramifications were. "All I ask is that people keep an open mind." Baumann's next book, which he's researching now, is another foray into the intersection of the scientific and the spiritual. It's a medical analysis of the trance-state "readings" done in the first half of the 20th century by Edgar Cayce, the clairvoyant whose foundation published God at the Speed of Light. "Cayce is a fascinating figure," Baumann says, "and fortunately he was smart enough to hire a stenographer to document every trance state he was in, some 8,000 or 9,000 of them. Basically, in this self-induced hypnosis he was able to access the, for lack of a better word, collective unconscious, the source of all knowledge in the universe. He would diagnose, at a distance, people with medical conditions and prescribe treatments, some of them so futuristic that, even now, alternative medical groups are having trouble accepting them. But his success rate, at times, was phenomenal." All of Cayce's readings are available on the Internet and CD-ROM. Baumann has actually traveled several times to the library in Virginia Beach to see the original hard copy. "When they published my book, I barely knew who Cayce was, and now I'm really caught up in the implications of his work," Baumann says. "I'm beginning to believe there's no such thing as serendipity." He laughs and squints out the window into the sunlight, sitting there with God smeared all across his face.