Reality is light

Here's a simple question: what happens when you fall over and hit your head on the floor? We’ve all experienced this event at least once in our lives and it usually hurts, but what do we know about this event? What fundamentally has happened? How has that come about? What agents are at work to make it happen?

To start with, we do know that certain things will happen if we lose our balance. For starters, we’ll accelerate towards the floor. We’ll then keep going towards the floor until we hit it. When that happens, we’ll be brought to a halt and it’ll hurt. Time will have passed during these events and we’ll have changed position as a result of what has happened. We can be very confident that if we lose our balance again, we will fall over and hit the floor. This is a reliable prediction. We won’t float or go upwards. When we reach the floor, we won’t pass through it. These facts are known to us because the universe around us is made of solid, physical things that hurt us if we hit them. In other words, our waking reality is a reliable, predictable and above all, physical place. But what do physicists say about this physicality?

When the physicists at Cambridge investigated the existence and structure of the atom, many of them were of the view that the atom was some sort of solid object. They knew that atoms, the fundamental building blocks of matter, contained electrons. These negatively charged particles were present in atoms but they could also be released in certain situations, giving the atom that remained a net positive charge. The physicists concluded that because of this, the atom must be some sort of positive lump into which the electrons were embedded, like plums in a pudding. This ‘plum pudding’ model of the atom was a popular one; it seemed to make sense and it fitted with experimental results…. but it was wrong.

The ‘plum pudding’ idea was soon knocked for six, as a theory, when a very clever scientist called Ernest Rutherford, along with several junior colleagues, carried out a ground-breaking experiment. They bombarded a thin layer of gold with energetic particles, then carefully recorded what happened to those particles when they were fired at the target. If atoms were structured like a plum pudding, they reasoned, then the high-energy particles should have either been absorbed by the atoms, if they hit them, or at least deflected at an angle, or in some cases, gone straight through.

Their results shocked them. The vast majority of particles went straight through the material, which indicated that the heart of atoms was almost all empty space, but a few of the particles bounced backwards, indicating that in the middle of each atom contained a small but extremely dense nucleus. Rutherford famously commented that the result was ‘like seeing a cannonball hit a tissue paper and bounce backwards’. Their results showed that the nucleus of an atom, that contains its protons and neutrons, is tiny compared to its overall size, bounded as it is by a cloud of orbiting electrons. The atom's nucleus, compared to its total size, is akin to a pea sitting in the middle of a sports stadium.

It’s worth noting here that even now, when we talk about the atom, we can’t help but use physical phrases. In truth, electrons don’t orbit the nucleus in a cloud. Neither do particles bounce off the nucleus. It's also not strictly true that electrons orbit the nucleus like planets around a sun or moons around a planet. All these analogies are wrong. In fact, it is currently impossible to perceive how atoms actually operate. Scientists have an excellent mathematical understanding of how atoms operate - they can predict with great accuracy what atoms will do - but no one can accurately visualise, observe or describe what actually happens within them.

The brilliant Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac described this problem of describing an atom's inner workings in a fresh and perceptive way. He said that what goes on inside an atom is not like our physical world at all. Instead, it is more like a board game in which pieces are moved from one position, one state to another, according to a set of rules. In the same way that the material that chess pieces are made of is irrelevant in a game of chess, it is pointless to think about what an electron is made of. It is simply a playing piece in a game that makes certain moves. In this way, Dirac was trying to get across the important fact that imaging the behaviour of an atom in terms of macroscopic objects, like planets and stars, or billiard balls, is completely wrong.

Let’s go back to the scenario at the beginning of this article. A man falls over and hits his head on the floor. What is happening at the atomic level when a person suffers such an accident? Firstly, we know that the falling is due to gravity, that much is clear. Gravity causes our body to be attracted to the Earth beneath us. Gravity isn’t fully understood and physicists have spend decades trying to work out how gravity fits in with the rest of the laws of the universe and they’ve so far failed, but there’s no doubt that gravity, in some form, does exist.

Secondly, the hitting occurs when the atoms of our body come into close proximity with the atoms of the floor. When this happens, the electrons around one atom approach the electrons around the other atom. Electrons are negatively charged and negatively charged particles repel each other. This magnetic force of repulsion is transmitted by electromagnetic waves in the form of photons. In other words, a form of light makes the magnetic repulsion happen and stops our fall. In this strange way, light makes you stop falling through the floor and instead brings you to a sudden and often painful halt.

This pain occurs when you sense the impact on the floor with your nerves. They pick up the pressure caused by your movement being stopped and sent a signal up to your brain. This signal is electrical in nature. We know that all electromagnetic activity is mediated by light emissions. Therefore, once again, light is causing you to sense the pain of the impact. You could say that it is down to electrons but without light emissions, you would never receive a nerve signal.

This gives us a very odd fact. It is perfectly correct to say that the very physical experience of falling over and hitting one’s head is a process entirely mediated by light emissions. But this creates another, even odder fact. Light has no mass and so when we fall over and hit the floor, that entire physical event is governed by a phenomena that is not, in any way, physical. Someone could say the following: ‘Falling over and hitting one’s head is all about atoms colliding with each other. Atoms are physical, they have mass, and therefore the light is just a transmitter' but is it really that way around? Time for section 2…

What can we observe and measure?

Science is about the measurement of observable phenomena. Anything that isn’t measurable or observable cannot be said to exist, according to science. Scientific ideas can be inferred or postulated, but they're not fact. Science has always been about knowing for a fact what exists; what can be reliably observed or measured. Everything else is just fanciful ideas.

But here’s the rub, the only way we can measure all the subatomic particles is by observing the behaviour of light. This might sound like an irrelevant comment, since scientists have concluded and confidently believe that there are a whole menagerie of subatomic particles existing in the universe. They say that they have detected these particles such as electrons, protons and neutrons (which are supposedly both made of up and down quarks), neutrinos, positrons, muons and so on, right up to the Higgs Particle, often referred to as the ‘god particle’. But it's very important to note that at no point did those scientists detect any of those particles directly. What they actually detected was light behaving in a certain way. By observing those changing light emissions, they could reliably infer the existence of those subatomic particles.

For example, much of the pioneering work in studying the particles that made up an atom was done using cloud chambers. When subatomic charged particles like protons and electrons pass through a cloud chamber, they hit the atoms of water or alcohol that make up the cloud. When this happens, they knock electrons off those atoms, ionising the atoms in the process. These ionised atoms cause other atoms to cluster around them and a track of condensation forms as those clustered atoms switch from gas to liquid, like the contrails forming in the wake of a jet plane. This condensation alters the way light passes through the water or alcohol, resulting in a visible change. To help identify these subatomic particles, the cloud chamber is placed wholly inside a magnetic field. This causes charged particles passing through the chamber to travel in a curved path. Anyone observing the cloud chamber can therefore infer and say ‘look, a proton has passed through here because I’ve observed a trail of condensation that’s following a curve of a certain shape. Success!’ But as you can see from what's just been described, no one actually observed a proton. The observer only observed a change in properties of the atoms of the liquid/gas medium and they only did that by observing changes in the patterns of light emission within the chamber.

Here’s another example. When scientists want to detect a neutrino - which is a very elusive subatomic particle indeed - they also have to rely on light. Scientists spot the passage of a neutrino by looking for Cherenkov Radiation. This type of light behaviour occurs when a particle travels faster than light. It is true that in a vacuum, nothing travels faster than light but when light passes through a liquid, for example, its speed is slowed enough for certain particles to actually overtake it.

After a fair amount of study, I personally haven’t been able to find a single subatomic particle that can be detected directly. The existence of all subatomic particles and their behaviour seem to be entirely inferred from the observation of light behaviour or more correctly, electromagnetic waves.

As light behaves in a very consistent way, and thanks to the advanced mathematics we’ve developed, physicists are entirely confident that these subatomic particles exist as real things. But in truth, from the point of view of a pure scientist, that view can only be regarded as a belief. The only thing that we can be sure of, scientifically, is that light behave in a certain reliable, predictable way. Subatomic particles may exist that cause this light behaviour but we cannot confirm that through direct observation.

There is a further, strange twist to this problem. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory, subatomic particles don’t exist at all in any real sense until they are observed or measured. Until that happens, all that exists is the probability that a subatomic particle exists, spread across infinity.

This leads to a weird result. Quantum theory tells us that between measurements, nothing actually exists. Something is going on, since the measurements show a reliable pattern of behaviour, but what is going on between measurements isn’t real or physical or existing; it’s just probabilities. If we include this in our conclusions, then we can say that when we make measurements or simply observe reality in any form, all we ever do is observe a series of light emission events. Everything between those light emission events is not only impossible for us to detect directly, it isn't even actually real.

In one fell swoop, all the subatomic particles apart from the photon (the quantum of electromagnetic radiation and light) are gone. Along with them go the forces acting between them; the strong and weak forces. A scientist might want to imagine the existence of these particles and forces as a way to work out the causal connection between light events but that would just an act of imagination, a creation of a metaphor. It's a perfectly valid approach but as they are not directly measurable, they cannot be regarded as factually true; they are simply useful ideas.

But there is one force that is seemingly separate to light that we are all very much aware of in a macroscopic or everyday fashion; gravity.

Distance and Movement

When we fall over and hit our head, we know it’s partly down to gravity. Isaac Newton worked out centuries ago that all particles with mass are attracted to all other particles with mass. He famously noticed this phenomena when an apple fell on his head. It fell on his head because it was attracted to him and the Earth and everything else. To be truthful, it was mostly by the Earth; he just got in the way.

Centuries after Newton’s brilliance, scientists noticed that his equations almost matched the phenomena they observed, but not exactly. For example, Newton’s equations didn’t fit with the odd behaviour of Mercury’s orbit around the Sun.

Along came Albert Einstein. He had read the experiments of Mickelson and Morley who’d found, through a very clever experiment, that the speed of light was the same in all directions. This was a shock to everybody. Light was known to act as a wave. Waves travel in a medium, like water or air, so they thought light must be travelling in a medium too. This was referred to as the ether. Since the earth orbited around the sun, the speed of light should change depending in which direction the Earth was moving through this ether, but it didn’t. Mickelson and Morley had shown that the speed of light didn’t change at all.

Einstein realised that the only way to take this fact on board was to accept that time was not absolute. The faster an object went, the more its time differed from the time experienced by another object moving at a different speed. The only absolute reference point, Einstein concluded, was the speed of light itself. All other motions by objects could only be viewed in relation to each other. In addition, he realised that even the observed length of the object would change as its speed approached the speed of light.

Einstein published his new Law of Relativity and it was ground-breaking. This theory, that had abandoned the idea of absolute time and an absolute reference point, matched the behaviour of objects in the universe better than Newton’s Laws. Einstein had made a brilliant breakthrough, but it was a hard idea to understand. For example, Relativity tells us that if I’m zooming along at half the speed of light, time will seem to be moving along normally for me, but if I look at someone standing still as I pass them, time will seem to be passing for them really quickly. From their point of view, time is proceeding normally but if they look back at me, they see that time is passing very slowly for me. What is strange is that both of us will be right and correct.

But there’s an odd consequence to this. As Einstein pointed out, observations of time passing and distance travelled cannot be made absolutely. They can only be made relatively and with the speed of light acting as their benchmark as that is the only thing that can be relied on to stay the same. But that would mean that we can only measure distance and time relative to light as it is the only absolute reference point.

Let’s look again at our everyday situation; falling over and hitting our head on the floor. The event is described thus: If we lose our balance, gravity will cause us to accelerate towards the floor. We’ll keep going towards the floor until we hit it. When that happens, we’ll be brought to a halt and it’ll hurt. Time will have passed and we’ll have changed position.

After exploring what can be measured and observed, we can rewrite this situation. The event can now be described as: By referring to light emissions, we ascertain that we’re heading to the floor under gravity, a motion whose distance and duration are decided by light. When we reach the floor, light emissions relating to electron repulsion will stop us in our tracks and light-based neural signals will tell our brains that the impact hurt.

In that description, the only key word that wasn't 'light' was 'gravity'. Let's look at that beast a little more closely…


Gravity, to put it simply, is the process by which all matter is attracted to all other matter, causing them to reduce their mutual distance over time.

This sounds fine, but there’s a problem. The last few sections have indicated that what we observe to be physical is an illusion. Light produces the phenomena of physicality. The only thing that is ‘real’ in our reality is a series of electromagnetic radiation events, or to put it another way, a changing pattern of light. There is no matter in reality. Matter is simply a sensory phenomenon that arises out of our experience of the light pattern. With this in mind, Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 is helpful as it tells us that mass is energy. Since there is no mass in the universe, it all has to be energy. The only difference is whether the energy is ‘free’ light or energy as a property of the quantum states that connect the free light events.

But gravity is supposed to be a force that acts on mass. If there is no mass, how exactly is gravity functioning?

There is a strange possibility that could answer this. To help visualise it, let’s imagine a bat in a cave, filled with stalactites and stalagmites. The bat uses echo-location to work out its position and the size of the cave. It does this very well and happily flies around the cave, knowing how far away everything is. But what if we made the cave air denser? Sound travels faster in a denser medium. If we could do that without the bat noticing the change, the bat’s clicks would return quicker than before for everything around that bat in the cave. The bat might therefore conclude from what it’s hearing that the cave and everything in it has shrunk.

This exposes a paradox of perception. If there is a benchmark for someone’s measurements of the world around them, something that they perceive as never changing, something of which they cannot ‘step outside’, like a bat and the speed of its clicks, then that individual can be fooled into thinking that everything around them is being drawn towards everything else, when in fact nothing has truly moved. All that has happened is that a property of the medium of their measurement has changed.

In this way, in a reality where light is the benchmark of observation and always appears to us as fixed in speed, we could be fooled into thinking that everything physical around us is attracted to everything else by some force when in fact, there is no force at all. Instead, the scale of the lengths of all light paths in reality are shrinking in scale over time. Since we can only measure and observe distances between objects with light, and we always perceive light as constant in speed, we are incapable of perceiving this reduction in scale. All we can perceive is that all objects move towards each other until electromagnetic events or quantum rules stop any further contraction.

Isn’t this fun! We haven’t altered or corrected any established formulae or mathematical equations or even dismissed any established observations, and yet we now have a very different view of reality. In this new view of reality, the only thing that exists around us is a pattern of light. In addition, gravity does not exist as a force; it is simply an internal property of that changing light pattern.

Summing up

The 'reality is light' idea is a fun idea (and as far as I can tell, scientifically valid) and I really like the idea that gravity is the scalar reduction of our reality light pattern over time, although it would need much more theoretical work to even be counted as a hypothesis. If I come up with any other ideas to help this possibility along, I'll post them here. If it becomes obvious that the theory is provably wrong, it goes in the bin. Until then, who knows?… ;-)