A Natural History of Seeing: The Art and Science of Vision

A Natural History of Seeing: The Art and Science of Vision

"Novelist and science writer Simon Ings sets out to solve mysteries of seeing, taking us through the 600-million-year history of the eye.

Panoramic in every sense, it reaches back to the first seers (and to ancient beliefs that vision is the product of mysterious optic rays) and forward to the promise of modern experiments in making robots that see.

Reviews of the A Natural History of Seeing: The Art and Science of Vision

The problem is that there probably arent any answers to some of the questions this book throws up along the way. There is also speculation in the book that the reason for the Cambrian explosion (when suddenly life on earth seemed to get very, very creative) had to do with the evolution of sight. What is really interesting is that Homer spends lots of time talking about how things glint and this, apparently, is also a clear sign of colour blindness. The question I was most interested in was to wonder the extent to which colour is a socially conditioned response. Some of Lurias research in his book Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations on sorting colours is also interesting in this context. The graph on Page 227 of this book shows how the cells in our eyes respond to coloured light effectively our red cones (the cells that identify red light) dont actually make it up to the red end of the spectrum at all - struggling to get passed yellow to orange. In so many ways sight seems the least problematic of our senses we open our eyes and the world is just there but thats not how it works at all. Red is so vivid to say that we cant really see it, and that it is a creation of our minds determined by the context of the colours around it is so contrary to experience it just sounds like some kind of a joke. Like I said, this book is one of those that is hard to read, as you find yourself thinking more about what your eyes are doing as you read that you suddenly find it is a struggle to read at all. I cant begin to tell you how interesting it is and he is so good at bringing out all of the human in-fighting between researchers and various scientist along the way and at picking the most jaw-dropping story to illuminate his point look, just read the damn thing, you really wont be sorry.

The anatomy of an eye has always intrigued me, in one of those "I'll never completely get it" sorts of ways. (I excell at finding some throwaway bit of information and totally getting stuck on it and wanting to know more about that one thing that apparently no one else cares about.) In one of the Goodreads group I'm a part of some people have been discussing Homer's The Odyssey and one or two members commented on how strange Homer's description of different colors were. Interestingly enough, Ings touches on that in one of his chapters and says,Have special pity for anyone translating an ancient Greek text. Honey, sap and blood are all chloros which, as far as we can tell, is a sort of yellow-green.And then later:William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), four times British Prime Minister under Queen Victoria, and a great classicist, was unequivocal in his criticism of Homer's colour palette: 'Although this writer has used light in various forms for his purposes with perhaps greater splendour and effect than any other poet, yet the colour adjectives and colour descriptions of the poems are not only imperfect but highly ambiguous and confused... But as someone who is just as fascinated by the different colors in the world as I am about eyeballs, I wonder how any culture could not be interested in colors. Mostly, though, I'm totally tripped out by the concept that the ancient Greeks were color-blind and/or their vision just hadn't evolved enough to be able to discern between the different colors. Someone else in the group brought up a different theory about the Greeks based on a book she read, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, which also looks terribly interesting. Still, I felt Ings was just sort of repeating everything he learned from other people.

This one sat long on my bookshelf until I had a heated argument with some friends regarding the proper color for fire-extinguishers.

Daylight on Earth is a million times stronger than dim starlight, and night rapidly follows day. Eyes must not only feed on light; they must respond to extremes of glut and starvation. A camouflaged object in dappled light is immediately noticed by a color-blind person: its distinctive sheen gives it away. Just 1 degree away from the very center of my vision, I see things only 1/2 as well. There are more than 40 different types of nerve cell in the retina, each with their own "field of view." There are cells which edit the responses of photoreceptors and bipolar cells that compress that information by factors of 12-1000, depending on the light level; no one knows how this adjustment is made. There, the information is once again savagely edited, until only a million signals remain to be carried along the optic nerve to the brain. The red & yellow pigments in the eyes of insects also color the wings of butterflies. And is it not ironic, that in 538 million years of natural selection, eyesight should evolve from a simple light-detecting cell, pass through numerous variations and generate countless different ways of seeing, and come at last to serve as the dominant sense of the planet's dominant species - an animal who sees only what it wants to see?

I thought it was interesting that there was a time when scientists spent a lot of time (and money) studying optograms, which is a faint image stamped on the retina for a brief period after death. (Sounds like a movie I saw once...) The last few pages I found most interesting, though, bc it was about studies conducted as to whether people only see what they want to see or what they've been trained/told to see or expect to see. Then the viewer is told, OK, now this time, just sit back and watch the game and don't worry about counting anything.

The second half of the book contained many arresting passages, but, every now and then, I would realise suddenly that I hadn't paid much attention for a page or two because my mind had taken me somewhere more captivating than the page.

The first half covers the evolution and development of the eye. The second covers how it is the eye functions and how animals see. 2. Those "compound eyes" that bugs have got, what freak us out in bad B movies, are actually far inferior in design to ours. If humans had compound eyes, they would have to be roughly 3-4 feet tall. "If the eyes of a honeybee were much bigger, it would be too heavy to fly." So take that, you freakshows. Now that is going to keep me up for weeks) so they evolved non-compound eyes. 5. We humans are pack animals, and this is why the eye is so expressive. So, we primates have spent millions of years living in terror of what the dominant individuals are thinking. I was a little disappointed, because I wanted to know whether or not my cat actually "appreciates" looking out the window at small birds.

And yet, thats exactly what Simon Ings does in his book A Natural History of Seeing. He takes the reader on an in-depth whirlwind of sight, combining it with heady doses of my favorite subjects, so that it reads nothing like a regular nonfiction book. Her eyes inspired it (Ings 13.) Ingss book, A Natural History of Seeing, is a smashing success on two fronts: it relates pure scientific knowledge to the reader, and does so with surprising ease and charm.

By far the most effective ultraviolet filter in the human eye is the lens. Our lenses are extremely efficient filters of ultraviolet light, reflecting our daylight habits, but with the lenses removed, human eyes can perceive ultraviolet wavelengths, something which, though barely wondered over, must have been apparent to ophthalmic patients for at least two thousand years.

I began by writing science fiction stories, novels and films, before widening my brief to explore perception (The Eye: A Natural History), 20th-century radical politics (The Weight of Numbers), the shipping system (Dead Water) and augmented reality (Wolves).

  • English

  • Science

  • Rating: 4.06
  • Pages: 336
  • Publish Date: October 17th 2008 by W. W. Norton Company
  • Isbn10: 039306719X
  • Isbn13: 9780393067194