Eyes to see

Perseid_and_Milky_WayIs seeing something that just happens to you when light hits your retina, or is it a mental process?  In two books I’ve read recently scientists describe what it’s like to see things, and they describe it more as a skill than a simple sensory function.

William Herschel was a self-taught astronomer from the late eighteenth century.  He made his own telescopes and became the most skillful astronomer of his generation.  Working together with his sister Caroline, he discovered the planet Uranus and lots of other things.

He described his “art of seeing” like this:

“The eye is one of the most extraordinary Organs…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 visual images didn’t simply fall on the eye like an exposure on film, the eye interpreted what it saw.  He had to learn to see, and over time became more skillful at it [1].

His son, John Herschel also became an eminent astronomer, and after trying to show something to one of his friends commented, “An object is frequently not seen from not knowing how to see it, rather than from any deficit in the organ of vision…I will instruct you how to seem them” [2].

Another example of learning to see is Barbara McClintock, a geneticist whose career spanned the 1930s to the 1980s.  She made a name for herself very early in her career for being able to see corn chromosomes under the microscope better than anyone else, and by connecting genetic studies of corn with cytological studies.  Her work clarified the fact that the way traits are inherited is determined by what physically happens to chromosomes.

After her success with corn, a fellow scientist asked for help with the organism he was working on – Neurospora, or bread mold.  His group had success in studying the genetics of Neurospora, but their work was hindered by the fact that no one could see its chromosomes under the microscope.  So they asked McClintock to help.  She spent three days looking, but got nowhere.  So she realized she had to “do something” with herself, and went for a walk.  She sat on a bench under some eucalyptus trees at Stanford for a while, then, “Suddenly I jumped up, I couldn’t wait to get back to the laboratory.  I knew I was going to solve it – everything was going to be all right.”

And within 5 days she’d identified all seven Neurospora chromosomes and followed them through cell divisions.  How did she do it?  She said, “I found that the more I worked with [the chromosomes] the bigger and bigger they got, and when I was really working with them I wasn’t outside, I was down there.  I was part of the system.   I was right down there with parts of the chromosomes – actually everything was there.  It surprised me because I actually felt as if I were right down there and these were my friends” [3].

I never had an epiphany quite like that while I was doing biology research.  I never acquired exceptional skills as a microscopist, although I spent a lot of time looking through microscopes – enough to know there is a certain amount of skill needed before you can look through an eyepiece and get any work done on a microscope.  So I appreciate what the Herschels and McClintock said.

I can think of other examples where knowing what you are looking for helps you see more than someone with an inexperienced eye – seeing camouflaged animals, cracking secret codes, or detecting fake pieces of art, for instance.  But people also sometimes see things that aren’t really there.  For example Herschel was convinced he saw inhabitants on the moon, and McClintock observed that certain kinds of genes in corn are inherited in an unconventional way (they were transposable, or “jumping” genes), and became convinced that corn used these genes to control gene expression.  She was wrong about that, but believed it to the end, even when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering transposable genes and everyone else in the field at the time had totally rejected her interpretation of them.  The Nobel Prize was in a way a repudiation of her ideas, and she knew it [4].

I guess there’s a bit of a cautionary tale here.  We have to be able use our experience and skills to interpret what we see, but it’s possible to become so confident in our abilities to perceive things correctly that we can’t tell when we’re wrong.  Something to be aware of, I think.


1.The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes, page 116.

2.Ibid, page 440.

3.A Feeling for the Organism: the Life and Work of Barbara McClintock by Evelyn Fox Keller, page 117.

4.The Tangled Field by Nathaniel Comfort, page 11.


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11 Responses

  1. Aaron R. says:

    Nice post. Two brief comments:

    1. Gilles Deleuze has often discussed our embodied capacity to be affected by other bodies. The process of becoming is invariable shaped by what we are able to sense. Taste is a famous example of a sense which can attuned, shaped, and molded to experience greater contrasts. The same is true of our other senses and so I suppose that as we become more able to experience the richness and variety of life that we also experience something of what it means to have an abundant life.

    2. One inference from point 1: That spiritual eyes can see purer or more refined matter is, in part, a product of being attuned to see the world differently. Whether this means that there is in fact a realm of currently unperceived matter or whether it is merely a way of seeing (e.g., purer = godly) what is already given is unclear.

  2. Alisa says:

    I love this interesting discussion. I’ve also been thinking about the lenses I use to see things through, the focus I have, the stories I tell myself.

    This NPR story about how radiologists often miss an angry gorilla image on a scan while they look for cancer was really eye-opening to me. In learning to see, we also learn what not to see. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/02/11/171409656/why-even-radiologists-can-miss-a-gorilla-hiding-in-plain-sight . I have a son going in for an MRI soon, so I totally found this interesting, that looking for one thing makes you blind to another.

    Specifically, I think I’ve learned to see things that are problematic, but I would like to see more joy and gratitude in my life. I’m trying to train my eyes to see those things and practice a more joyful, grateful life.

  3. Emily U says:

    Aaron – what a fascinating question in your second point. I’d love to know the answer. And I love the idea that richness and variety, and the ability to sense them, make life abundant.

    Alisa – thanks for the link. If people can miss a gorilla, they can miss anything! I love the idea of training my eyes to see the good in my life. And in others.

  4. April says:

    I’m not very observant. In some ways, this is adaptive. I think, what a nice house and ignore the peeling paint, or what a darling child and don’t notice that the child’s face is dirty. So my failure to see keeps me content a lot of the time. Still, I also fail to notice people in need, like good Christians should, or register important information, like when I am offending someone. So my eyes could probably use some training.

    I have heard people describe how they have had a feminist awakening and now they see inequality everywhere where it was invisible before. I have found that to be true for me. For example, when I was younger, I never noticed that only men were asked to speak last every week in Sacrament Meeting, but now it bothers me every Sunday (except Fast and Testimony meeting, of course). So in some ways, I was more comfortable when my eyes weren’t seeing.

    • Emily U says:

      Yeah, seeing too much can be a problem, too. Before I met my husband I would never have noticed dents and scratches on cars, but he was really particular about that stuff so I started noticing it, too. It didn’t make me any happier. (I say was because he’s not as particular as he used to be – having kids will do that to you.)

      I guess what we see tell us something about the meaning we attach to things. To me cars were just transportation, but to him a car symbolized success and being a good caretaker.

  5. X2 Dora says:

    Somewhere, I read something along the lines of, “You saw it, you just didn’t notice it.” We see so many things with our physical eyes, that we just can’t take in. We learn to filter out what isn’t important to us, or what we don’t have the time to deal with. However, we learn to focus in on those things that matter to us. This is one of the reasons why I believe it’s so important to be a part of an accepting community. We may not all see alike, but that doesn’t discount the important things that other people notice, that may become very important in the lives of all community members.

  6. Ziff says:

    This is really interesting, Emily U. Thanks for posting it.

    Regarding the question of seeing things that aren’t really there, it seems like a lot of arguments around feminism in the bloggernacle are related to the question of whether a particular pattern is really there. Mostly patterns of how women are treated in the Church. You would think (or at least I would think) that there would be more discussion around what the pattern means once we’ve observed it (e.g., men always speaking last, like April pointed out), but it seems like a lot of times the argument gets hung up on whether the pattern even really exists. Which I think is unfortunate.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    This is a lovely post, Emily. I want to apply it to scripture study. I feel like in Sunday School, we have a set of narratives in the scriptures that have one interpretation, or one way to be seen. I feel like we, as a class, and as individuals miss so much when we do that. There are so many parts of the story we must leave out to come to that one Gospel lesson. What angry gorillas do I miss when I fall into the usual (comfortable) way of looking at one of my favorite stories in the scripture?

    • Emily U says:

      I love this! I want to apply that idea to scripture study, too. I’ll have to think about some ways I can jog myself out of my usual ruts.

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