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Seeing differently

April 1, 2011

We tend to think of our vision as an absolute and correct representation of the world. Light hits objects around us, bounces back to our eyes, which gather the light on receptors that communicate with our brain. Bada-bing-bada-boom a faithful picture is assembled and we see.

Not so much. We are susceptible to illusions, we have a blind spot where our optic nerve meets the retina — our brain fills in the ‘best guess’ for what we can’t see there. We can only focus on one point at a time. Our vision is simply an interpretation. And as such, we can train ourselves to see better.

The art of seeing:

I’m currently reading a fascinating book: The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes. The following is gleaned from his book:

Brother and sister team William and Caroline Herschel were self-taught astronomers. William’s passion led him to make his own telescopes, constructing beautiful instruments that surpassed the best of his day in power and clarity. He was a musician, and his mastery of musical notation perhaps helped him navigate the night sky.

As Herschel explained his remarkable powers of observation: the more he observed, the more he realized “the eye is one of the most extraordinary Organs” and with time, he grew more skillful at seeing. “I remember a time when I could not see with a power beyond 200, with the same instrument which now gives me 460 so distinct that in fine weather I can wish for nothing more so.”

Herschel’s art of seeing led him to the discovery of Uranus, the first new planet to be named in hundreds of years. His amateur status and sometimes exuberant ideas about astronomy and life on the moon led the scientific community to doubt him at the time, but his observations were so good, that they came round. The position of Personal Astronomer to the king was created for Herschel so he could see full time. This allowed him to train his younger sister Caroline as an assistant astronomer, and her devotion to her brother turned into a genuine passion and talent for astronomy.

Caroline wrote of the various ways of seeing, of the fact that “different eyes judge differently of [the same] colours”, and that ‘eyes tire’ without the viewer noticing.

The Herschel’s relentless observations (it would be 5 or 6 hours a night, even in extreme cold, with William shouting out observations to his sister, who made notes, took measurements on the ground, and fetched tools) led to a revolutionary idea that the universe was not fixed, but in motion, and that the nebulae he observed might be huge star clusters or galaxies outside our own. Instead of a flat smear across the sky, the Milky Way was a star cluster in its own right, that would look like the nebulae if observed from another galaxy. His later drawings produced the discus of the Milky Way as we know it, with spiral arms spinning out into a vast space.

He called the star clusters ‘Laboratories of the universe’ recognizing that here stars were born in a process of continuous creation. What radical ideas!

Caroline eventually graduated from assistant to make her own observations and  become the “Ladies’ Comet Hunter”.

"The second satellite of the Andromeda galaxy. Photo courtesy of"-from

Using a smaller telescope designed for her by William, she was able to discover hitherto unknown comets streaking the sky and nebulae swirling in the vast reaches of space. Her first comet was C/1786 PI (discovered in 1786). She was the first woman astronomer to be paid by the king, receiving an annual £50 from George III. I very much admire her courage, conviction and dedication as a women in science.

(The story of William and Caroline was gleaned from this fantastic book I am reading: The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, about scientific discovery in the romantic age. I love this book and this section of it especially).

Experiments with vision

Twin brothers Trevor and Ryan Oakes are artists with a unique way of seeing. This article from the Chicago Reader is fascinating, detailing the ‘new way to draw’ that the brothers use.

It seems the that the Oakes twins were always fascinated with the way that our watery orbs of eyes see the world. The way that we think we see something is not the whole truth. They found that they were able to turn off the filters that our brain uses and draw what we actually see. If you look, you can sort of see a fleshy floating diamond in the middle of your vision–your nose. Can’t see it? Close one eye. Can you see that your nose actually blocks a large portion of your view? Your brain has just learned to ignore it, filling in the details one eye misses with the view from the other eye. It gets kinda crazy if you think about it. The Oakes twins did, and I really cannot stress that you must read that article and see what they came up with after thinking about the way we see.

For more on the curious ways our eyes and brain see the world, check out the following:

The Exploratorium in San Francisco has an excellent collection of links on seeing: illusions, science, and visual arts.

One of my favorite science writers, Carl Zimmer, writes about the evolution of eyes: part I, partII.

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