Part 1: The sword of light
by Geoff Olson
• Sunset was nearing as my partner and I relaxed against a log on Ambleside Beach on an unseasonably warm afternoon in late winter. The oblique rays from the sun cast the Lions Gate Bridge in sharp relief against the Smurf-blue skies, making the structure look both more substantial and dreamlike at the same time. Our dog, a Rottweiler-Lab-Collie mix, was pawing at driftwood, insisting I throw it into the water for her.
As I dragged the wood toward the shore, I noticed how the sun’s reflection created an incandescent sword of light on the water, pointing from the horizon toward my feet. I threw the stick with all my might and it broke the sword of light into diamond-like fragments. The gleaming ripples quickly merged back into the undulating sword, only to be broken up again by my dog’s earnest paddle toward the bobbing wood.
The Ambleside walkway was populated by smiling couples, power walkers, dog lovers, dogs and wealthy West Van matrons draped in gleaming bangles and bracelets. Anyone looking out into the water from this quarter-mile expanse would have been granted the same sight: the sword pointing in their direction from the sea horizon – a blinding cutlass that tracked them as they walked. Different from each perspective and unique to every observer.
The sword of light is not an “object” in any usual sense. Its existence depends on a combination of sun, water and observer. And though the optics behind it seem straightforward – light reflecting off the surface of water – the high school trigonometry belies a more complex story.
I’m hardly the first to comment on the ‘sword of light.’ In fact, I have cheerfully taken the term from Italo Calvino’s 1983 novel Mr. Palomar. The book’s eponymous hero visits a beach, a zoo, a cheese museum, a sand garden and other mundane destinations. In the first chapter, he decides on an evening swim and discovers that no matter how he approaches the water, “he remains the vertex of that sharp, gilded triangle; the sword follows him, pointing him out like the hand of a watch whose pivot is the sun.”
The sword is imposed equally on the eye of each swimmer; there is no avoiding it, he concludes. “Is what we have in common precisely what is given to each of us as something exclusively his?” He then considers that none of this is happening on the water or the sun. It’s occurring inside his head; the sword of light exists there alone.
Mr. Palomar cannot conceive of what happens to the sword of light when all the swimmers and crafts have returned and turned their backs on an empty shore. He finds his identity disintegrating in a thought-mediated hall of mirrors. Perhaps the phenomenal world is “just reflection among reflections, me included,” he muses.
But didn’t the light reflect off the surface of the seas for millions, if not billions, of years before eyes had evolved to see it?
“Mr. Palomar swims under water, surfaces; there is the sword! One day an eye emerged from the sea, and the sword, already there waiting for it, could finally display its fine, sharp tip and its gleaming splendour. They were made for each other, sword and eye: and perhaps it was not the birth of the eye that caused the birth of the sword, but vice versa, because the sword had to have an eye to observe it at its climax.”
He dries himself off with a towel and returns home, “convinced the sword will exist even without him.”
Italo Calvino died just a few years after the publication of Mr. Palomar. “Europe regarded Calvino’s death as a calamity for culture,” wrote novelist Gore Vidal, Calvino’s neighbour in a 1985 appreciation for the New York Review of Books. The author’s funeral was a state event in Italy; he was buried in the village cemetery at Castiglione della Pescaia, with parliamentarians, school children and fellow authors in sober attendance amongst vast floral wreaths “suitable for a Neapolitan gangster,” in Vidal’s words.
I wonder what Mr. Palomar – or rather his inquisitive creator – would have made of another light phenomenon: a rainbow?
Rainbows result when water droplets suspended in the air act as tiny prisms, splitting white light into constituent colours. But a rainbow does not actually exist at a particular location in the sky. Its apparent position depends on the observer’s location and the position of the sun; at the “antisolar” point, which is directly opposite the sun in the sky. If the atmospheric conditions are right, you will complete the geometrical configuration and see a rainbow.
The rainbow shifts position as you move, just like the sword of light. Different observers at different positions will complete the geometry with different water droplets – and the rainbow centred at the antisolar point will always have an angular radius of 42 degrees (a number that will undoubtedly excite fans of Douglas Adams’ novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
Ancient Romans and Etruscans interpreted rainbows as portents of great change: the death of kings, the invasion of cities and other worrisome events. For moderns, the rainbow image has become an all-purpose icon for branding Saturday morning cartoon characters, political parties and human rights groups. It has become tired shorthand for happy-face optimism, yet the actual phenomenon retains its power to amaze.
A few years back, my partner and I were in North Vancouver’s Upper Lynn Valley on a damp afternoon hike when we witnessed a double rainbow so technicolour intense we felt compelled to point it out to others in the streets. People stopped in their tracks and craned their necks, grokking at a sight halfway between Sistine Chapel kitsch and a Panavision fever dream.
Remember “Double Rainbow Guy?” Several years ago, Hungrybear9562, aka Paul Vasquez, posted a video on YouTube of a brilliant double rainbow near his Yosemite cabin. He babbled, laughed and cried for joy throughout the four-minute clip. “What does it mean? What does it mean?” Double Rainbow Guy swoons while recording the dazzling display on the horizon.
Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel tweeted the YouTube moment, pronouncing it the funniest video in the world. Millions of hits followed. The hosts of ABC’s Good Morning America asked Vasquez if he was on drugs. “I was just on pure rainbow power. It was just the spirit of the universe influencing me,” he responded.
Vasquez’s clip made it sound like he was either high or unhinged. Or perhaps he was just missing a few filters and one of nature’s wonders struck his retro-hippie heart like a bull’s-eye. It was hard to tell how much people were laughing at the YouTube subscriber or laughing with him – mostly the former, I’m afraid. He wasn’t visible in the clip so this wasn’t your usual online exercise in Internet narcissism. The bearded Yosemite resident repurposed his post-rainstorm ecstasy as global entertainment; in response, the professional cynics of broadcast media interpreted his stupefaction as stupidity.
Mr. Vasquez had more than the usual 15 minutes of fame allotted most YouTube stars. The Internet band The Gregory Brothers autotuned his vocals into an up-tempo sing-song and performed it live with Vasquez. Saturday Night Live followed with Jimmy Fallon’s dead-on impression of Neil Young quavering his new song, Double Rainbow. The original video was overwhelmed by dozens of mock-ups, send-up and parodies, somewhere between homage and fromage.
In any case, there was something admirable in anyone being so nakedly awestruck before a global audience – even if his rainbow sighting lost a lot of oomph when filmed with a shaky handheld camera and converted to a 240 dpi YouTube clip.
Paul Vasquez wasn’t that much different from Italo Calvino in his response to nature. The author used a fictional proxy to convey his intellectual wonderment at a display of light reflection. The Yosemite resident used a videocamera to record a display of light refraction. Calvino’s route was through the mind. Vasquez took the trickier route in our culture of snark – through the heart.
Like Calvino’s sword of light, rainbows seem to hover in the twilight zone between objective reality and subjective truth. Do such age-old ‘personal tracking devices’ mean anything without an observer? Mr. Palomar would have undoubtedly said yes, but most scientists would give a more qualified answer. Yes, you can remove the human observer and put in a mechanical proxy – a camera or videocamera – and the rainbow will show up in a digital image for later inspection.
But a stream of ones and zeroes cannot be interpreted as ‘rainbow’ by any technical device incapable of perceiving colour, which is a subjective artifact the mind weaves out of light frequencies.
Photons themselves, the subatomic packets of energy that light up our world sometimes behave like waves and sometimes like particles. It’s a paradox that common sense rejects even while science exploits it in everything from solar panels to smart phones. “Now, my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose,” observed British scientist J.B.S Haldane in 1927, a remark that has only gained greater currency now that astronomers have determined the cosmos is composed mostly of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy.’
The sun is a now a glowing ball half immersed on the horizon. My dog returns from the water with another huge piece of driftwood in her mouth. She drops it to the ground and shakes off the water. A faint prismatic display appears briefly in the cloud of droplets thrown from her hide: a rainbow. I get a mild jolt of delight in seeing this. When it comes to light – the most immediate expression of the subatomic realm in our daily lives – my canine-aided enchantment is as warranted as Mr. Palomar’s beachside absorption or Mr. Vasquez’s YouTube epiphany.