Science writer and novelist Ings (The Weight of Numbers, 2006, etc.) compresses an encyclopedia’s worth of information about the evolution, makeup and function of the eye into an energetic, accessible volume.
He fuses history, science and personal anecdote to explain vision as it belongs to “a commonwealth of the senses,” while also relating the generations of brilliant researchers (Kepler, Brahe, Platter, da Vinci, al-Kindi) whose investigations cohere into the comprehensive understanding of sight and vision that we possess today. Exuding curiosity and awe, Ings delves into the wonders of trilobites and their compelling calcite lenses; the children of the Burmese Moken, whose pupils have evolved to shrink unimaginably small in order to increase acuity underwater; the connection among “night blindness,” malnutrition, the retinal pigment rhodopsin and Vitamin A; the curious and revelatory Ophthalmosaurus fossil, whose vertebrate eyes contained bone. Alongside this technical history, Ings examines the philosophical implications of sight, exploring color as “a construction of mind” in addition to the reactions of rods and cones. The eye plays an important role in behavioral development, providing universal cues and expressions that build social skills starting in infancy. An instinct as simple as following another person’s line of sight is an integral part of communication; only when sight is taken away do these basic facets of interaction reveal themselves as fundamental. The author concludes with a chapter discussing the possibilities of electronic sight, including ultrasound spectacles that convey information directly to electrodes positioned on the surface of the visual cortex, and prosthetic retinal implants that would enable non-damaged ganglion cells to bypass damaged photoreceptors and recapture light. At MIT, Rodney Brooks’s “embodied” artificial intelligence could produce miniaturized robots whose vision—and perhaps cognition—mirror or exceed our own. These and other innovations are not science fiction, but modern-day accomplishments ushering in what Ings dubs “the Perception Revolution,” which could very well redefine the way we see the world.
A keen, colorful contribution to popular science.