Question: Why are there no Puritans anymore?

Answer: There are so many churches in America, you'd think that at least one would have Puritan in the name, and, out front, a yellow illuminated sign with plastic clip-on letters saying, "Come Friday to our Witch Fry."

But the Puritans are history, which means that for most of us they exist only in caricature: the dark clothes, the funny hats, the pervasive dread that somewhere someone might be having a good time.

In fact the Puritans have gotten a bad rap. Puritans were smart, bookish, deep-thinking. They didn't want religion served up to them by some corporate, hierarchical, pompous church; they wanted it pure.

They wanted the Church of England sanitized of all the remaining pageantry left over from Catholicism. They didn't like stained glass, for example. The Puritans were also called Precisionists, both names originating as epithets by other members of the Church of England who did not appreciate the picky, fussy, precise manner of these people. Some of the Puritans finally decided they couldn't take it any longer in England and so they came over here. The batch that landed at Plymouth we call the Pilgrims. Another group landed in what is now Boston a dozen years later.

So what happened to them?

Basically they were betrayed by their kids. It happens to every generation. You bust your buns to achieve "regenerative grace," but your kids simply take it for granted. Second-generation and third-generation Americans were busy being capitalists, and they didn't really care about the doctrinal reforms the way the old folks did. The term "Puritan" gradually fell out of favor, especially after the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, which were a major public relations disaster (David Gergen had not yet been invented).

The Puritans basically became Congregationalists. Puritans believed that church authority should be vested in the individual congregation, not in some powerful far-off governing body. The Congregationalist church of today does not have many Puritan doctrines, but it does have some of the ecclesiastic structures. (You might argue that the Baptists, who also have that independent streak, are heirs of the Puritans.) Some Congregationalist churches in the early 1800s became Unitarian. And a few decades ago the Congregationalist Church became part of the United Church of Christ.

The Unitarian-Universalist Church and the United Church of Christ are among the most liberal, socially progressive religious denominations in America. We don't want to make too big a deal about this, or exaggerate, but you can't help but conclude that the Puritans basically became hippies.

Question: Alan W., of Carmichael, Calif., writes, "Could you please clarify your explanation of how it is that light has mass? I was taught that mass is the quantitative measure of the amount of inertia that a material body has, and therefore, would seem to be a property only of matter. Have matters (and matter) changed so since I took general physics 20 years ago?"

Answer: Dear Alan: The main change in physics is the new rule saying, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, plus a very slight sideways lurch."

We did write that light has mass, and that was wrong, both factually and morally. Indeed, we were so puzzled by this error that we retraced our steps to figure out what happened - the Why staff, as you know, never just makes something up, because we strongly prefer to parrot mindlessly the words of others.

A brief investigation shows that what we wrote might actually be interpreted as a kind of avant-garde approach to discussing the physics of light - but it was irresponsible as a matter of middlebrow science journalism.

Our error was due to several factors, the first of which is that light does, in fact, have inertia, just like matter. That's why sunlight exerts a pressure on the ground of roughly 2 pounds per square mile. Light also can be interpreted as behaving like a particle. But that doesn't change the fact that, in common scientific language, light is not given the attribute of mass.

Theoretical physicist Charles Misner of the University of Maryland told us that light "in many circumstances acts like it has mass." But he said, "If you want to say it has mass, people looking for a precision language would be unhappy." (Puritan scientists would throw a fit!)

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The mass of an object is a measure of its momentum and the amount of energy it would take to produce that object. Typically people think of mass as the same thing as weight, but they are different. Your mass on the Earth and on the moon is the same, but you weigh less on the moon because the moon's gravity is weaker.

To get an understanding of how fuzzy the definition of mass is, check out the way Merriam Webster's defines the word: "the property of a body that is a measure of its inertia and that is commonly taken as a measure of the amount of material it contains and causes it to have weight in a gravitational field."

Tweezing the meaning from that gobbledygook, you'll see that light, having inertia, could be said to have mass, but that would be contrary to how mass is "commonly taken."

Now, if a priest says mass, that's a different kettle of fish.

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