Saturday, December 9, 2006

38)No. 4, 'Ayats'(Signs) in the Universe series. Photosynthesis: Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth....

Ayats(Signs) in the Universe series, no. 4
Photosynthesis: Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth...:

I would like to reflect on an event in nature so seminal and so ubiquitous that most life could not exist on earth without it. We have seen that our Imams have equated verses of the Quran with objects and events in nature and referred to both of them equivalently as 'Ayats' or 'Signs'. We have also seen how cosmological doctrines developed by both Iranian and Arab Ismaili dais during the peri-Fatimid period have seamlessly connected science to religion: The material universe is part of the structure of truth, the ultimate nature of which it is the goal of religion to reach. In these doctrines, the function of the 'Asas' or 'Founder' is to extract tawil from the 'Ayats' of both the scriptures and nature, to strip away the 'zahir' and reveal the 'batin' to those interested in learning about such things. As a result, I think that it should be possible to look at an event in nature, the intricate details of which have been worked out using the scientific method, and, perhaps, search for deeper symbolisms as one observes the sequential unfolding of the event.

July 2006. This past weekend, in fact. I had found my muse and it was, once again, at my cottage in Ontario's bucolic lake district, the Muskokas. I was, like before, lying on a beach chair on the deck surveying a scintillating natural scene in front of me. It was a perfect weekend, though very different from the April weekend I described many posts ago. Then, there was a thin layer of ice on the lake and the trees and plants were just beginning to bud. Now was different. I was mesmerized by the verdant, lush scenery around me in which the soothing, tranquil colour of green was in abundance. The azure lake on this sunny day exuded an air of freshness around me. The gentle wind that moved the fluffy clouds and made the tree branches sway as if the maker of the universe was waving at me, caressed my face and all the nooks and crannies of my body covered by my t-shirt and boxer shorts. I have been going on and on in a number of earlier posts about the sun, its radiation and how I was going to post about an event in nature that is not only a sequential marvel for human intellect to behold but, IMHO, is an event from which symbolic and allegorical meaning can be extracted, reflecting more timeless truths. But, in order to do so, I needed to be in a place that inspired me to put the words which would describe this sequential 'Ayat' or 'Sign' in nature together in my mind. I beleive I found it in the forests and lakes of Central Ontario.

The event in nature I wish to discuss, called Photosynthesis, can be described as both an astronomical as well as a terrestrial event at one and the same time. It is the process in which radiant energy from the sun is captured by green plants and used to power a process that enables the plant cell to make food for itself and for other living beings like animals and humans. All light, whether from the sun or other natural sources, has been found, by the 500 year old tradition of western science spawned by the Rennaissance, to have both wave-like and particle-like properties. In its particle-like aspect light travels as a discrete packet of energy, called a quantum, and is known as a photon. This discrete photon or packet of light also has wave-like properties and can be described in terms of its wavelength and frequency. A plant cell has, evolved within it, an organelle called a chloroplast, which has abundant quantities of a molecule called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is the substance that gives plants their soothing green colour. As sunlight beams down on the earth on a balmy day the specially designed chlorophyll molecules capture the photons of light energy in their energy-hungry double covalent bonds and, instantly, electrons in this chemical bond move upward into an unstable high energy state. Now, ordinarily, electrons in such a high energy state are not happy to stay that way so, if nothing else happens, these electrons will very quickly go back down to their original stable energy states and the energy they release on this downward journey is either released as another photon of light or is dissipated as heat. The chloroplast organelle has, however, designed a system that prevents this from happening. It bunches a large number of chlorophyll molecules together and, in this conglomeration, the highly energised electron gets rapidly shuttled around from one chlorophyll molecule to another, participating in a molecular dance, to prevent its energy from being dissipated uselessly. Embedded in this molecular system is also another molecule, called a primary electron acceptor, which eventually accepts the dancing electron. This acceptance takes the unstable energy of the excited electron and petrifies it by storing it in the much more stable chemical bond of the primary electron acceptor. From here the energy stored in that high energy electron can be harnessed in a much more controlled fashion and this process unfolds on one of the inner membranes of the chloroplast organelle inside the plant cell. The electron, now stored in a more stable chemical bond, travels down an electron transport chain, gradually releasing its energy into another set of molecules designed to store energy and which are specifically designed for the cell's metabolic apparatus to carry out the reactions that eventually produce food in the form of glucose. Once this new set of high energy molecules, called ATP and NADPH2 in scientific parlance, is formed, this marks the end of the so-called 'Light Reaction' of Photosynthesis. The 'Light Reaction' requires the presence of sunlight to drive it and the net result of this reaction is that electromagnetic radiation and energy caused by illumination from the sun is ingeniously caught and transformed into more stable energy trapped inside the chemical covalent bonds of different sets of energy-hungry molecules.

The next step in Photosynthesis is called the 'Dark Reaction', not because it occurs only in the dark, but because it does not need sunlight to drive it and occurs around the clock. This is the phase where the energy of the sun, now stored in the specific molecules ATP and NADPH2, enters a cycle, called the Calvin Cycle after a man named Calvin discovered it during the 1940s and for which he won the Nobel prize in 1961. In this cycle 3 molecules of low energy, highly oxidised carbon dioxide, which animals and humans release into the atmosphere during exhalation, are brought together with water, through the process of reduction, using the energy stored in those special molecules and with the help of enzymes, to form an extremely stable and high energy compound called G3P, a 3- carbon molecule. Oxygen is also released in this process. G3P can then go on to produce glucose, a 6-carbon molecule, and one which is again very stable and is used by animals and man as their source of energy to exist as living beings on the planet. This glucose is broken down by an organelle in animal and human cells called a mitochondrion into the same useable form called ATP, which is then used to power muscles and make the brain and other organs work as they should.

It is difficult to compute directly, but it appears to cost a chloroplast(in a plant cell) more energy to synthesize one glucose molecule than a mitochondrion (in a human cell) releases by disassembling it. More energy is thereore needed to put into the system than can be taken out of it. This shows clearly that the overall process is completely dependent on the sun and as long as the sun keeps shining, there is a limitless supply of energy for photosynthetic organisms to produce food in the form of organic(carbon-based) compounds.

The philosophical Ismailism that arose during the peri-Fatimid period was partially influenced by rational knowledge passed down from ancient Greece. Some of the terminology used in Neoplatonic philosophy, such as Universal Intellect and Universal Soul, while they were paired up with specific Ismaili concepts like Natiq and Asas to represent the structure of truth, nevertheless were themselves reflective of Quranic concepts. Hence the Universal Intellect is synonymous with Al-Sabiq, the Pen, or the Sun. The Universal Soul is synonymous with Al-Tali, the Tablet, or the Moon.

In the event of nature I described above, the sun in our universe drives the entire process by emitting its radiation onto green plants, which transforms this electromagnetic illumination into more stable and appropriate forms, which convert into nourishment, which then provides growth and development. Just as one can extract different layers of esoteric meaning from a Quranic verse(ayat or sign), one should also be able to extract different layers of symbolic meaning from an ayat or sign in nature since they are both thought to be equivalent in divine revelation. I see symbolism on two different levels in this ayat of nature. At a communal, institutional and population level the Imam takes the Noor or Light deep within himself and uses this illumination to nourish a disadvantaged and needy population and, in so doing, transforms it and causes growth and development, making it self-sufficient, prosperous and bountiful. On a more indidvidual level, the Imam once again takes the Noor or Light deep within himself and uses this illumination to nourish a needy human soul and, in so doing, transforms it and makes it grow and develop towards the timeless, instantaneous intellect that is the Noor.


Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation:Aga Khan 4.
The God of the Quran is the One whose Ayats(Signs) are the Universe in which we live, move and have our being:Aga Khan 3