Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dante's proton

Physicist Bob Estes draws my attention to his post, Dante's Heavenly Vision and the Physics of the Proton:

Now I want to consider Dante’s attempt to convey through poetry the mysterious concept of the Holy Trinity, which in his faith was a certainty. On reading the final canto of Dante’s Paradiso recently, I came across an image that immediately reminded me of something else I’d thought of before: the conceptual similarities between our scientific description of the proton and the Triune God; only now a particular detail of Dante’s description of what he had seen made the similarity appear stronger than I had realized before.

Near the end of his time in Heaven (Paradiso) Dante was finally empowered to behold God, his ability to comprehend mysteries directly by sight alone having been enabled by Divine grace. Here is the Singleton translation of lines 115-120 of Canto XXXIII of Paradiso.

“Within the profound and shining subsistence of the lofty Light appeared to me three circles of three colors and one magnitude; and one seemed reflected by the other, as rainbow by rainbow, and the third seemed fire breathed forth equally from the one and the other.”

This is far from being a clear picture, and Dante had said beforehand that description—even distinct memory—of what he had beheld was impossible. But I was struck this time by how much Dante’s word-painting resembles our own nebulous physical picture of the proton. The essentials of Dante’s vision were three equally sized circles (or spheres) of three colors and two distinguishable types, with some sort of continual interaction occurring among the circles. The image of the rainbows reflected in each other, with each circle yet of a different color, seems to my mind to be saying that the colors are changing, but in a co-ordinated way. I might add that Dante’s original description of God was as a point of blindingly bright white light.

Well, I have long been a Dante fan (illustrations here), and the illustration above is from an edition of the Paradiso.

(Note: This illustration aims at a different point from Dr. Estes', namely that all the blessed are linked as all the petals of a flower are linked to its stem. Thus questions of precedence in Paradise are not matters for envy. Wherever the petal is placed, it is linked to the stem that nourishes it.)