Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Newton's Apple: an Ode to Science

"It is no more crazy than a dog finding a rainbow. Dogs are colourblind, Gretchen. They don't see colour. Just like we don't see time. We can feel it, we can feel it passing, but we can't see it. It's just like a blur. It's like we're riding in a supersonic train and the world is just blowing by, but imagine if we could stop that train, eh, Gretchen? Imagine if we could stop that train, get out, look around, and see time for what it really is? A universe, a world, a thing as unimaginable as colour to a dog, and as real, as tangible as that chair you're sitting in. Now if we could see it like that, really look at it, then maybe we could see the flaws as well as the form. And that's it; it's that simple. That's all I discovered. I'm just a...a guy who saw a crack in a chair that no one else could see. I'm that dog who saw a rainbow, only none of the other dogs believed me."

- Stuart, "Kate & Leopold"

It happened sometime during the sound class at the NDTV Media Institute. Most of the 40-something apprentices had zoned out because of the technical nature of the subject, probably PTSD-ing over memories of science classes in school. An unfortunate phenomenon because if explained properly - enthusiastically - scientific principle has the ability to suddenly click and come flinging itself at you, wrapping itself around you over and over until you feel like a mummy helplessly sealed in all the possibilities that have suddenly revealed themselves to you. But most students never get to that point. Most students are turned away from science because they were not presented the science of possibility, the science of heroic vision, the science of revolution. Unfortunate, so unfortunate. Because that click when scientific principle dawns on you, really dawns on you, feels like the moment of shock when you realise that you are in love and you can't do anything about the psychedelic colours that are rotating in your eyes. Everybody knows that falling in love, requited or not, is one of life's greatest experiences. One has not lived if one has not loved with wonder and amazement, their mouths hanging open, their sight having long set out on the journey into the far, far distance. Imagine how much a person misses when one does not fall, really helplessly head-first fall, in love. That is exactly the experience a student who is not presented the real juice of science is deprived of.

The sound engineer who had been addressing us was obviously not one of those students. He was supposed to teach us about microphones but had digressed to the aesthetic quality of sound. He had started talking faster and faster, and his eyes had started sparkling. This was a man caught in the throes of reciting poetry about his beloved.

He had already told us that the human ear could only hear a very narrow range of sound. Human beings were only able to hear sounds between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz. This is not a measure of how loud the sound is. He made us listen to sounds that were close to 20 Hz and also to 20,000 Hz, and we could barely hear them because they were on the very edges of our ears' hearing abilities. He made us listen to sounds that were off our hearing scale, and we couldn't hear them at all. But the sound was there. Just because you couldn't hear it didn't mean that it didn't exist. It was propagating itself all around us, the waves were probably hitting our eardrums, but because our ears were not built to register sound waves of that frequency, we couldn't even detect its existence. That was a mildly frightening experience.

But everyone knows that dogs can hear sounds that human beings can't. But they can't
see colour like we can. Our perception of light is also determined by what our eyes have been built to detect on the electromagnetic spectrum. Along that spectrum, which to our knowledge is infinite, human eyes can only see a very narrow range, specifically 790 terahertz (blue), 400 terahertz (red), and all the colours in between. It is just EM radiation, and the part our eyes can detect we call light. The ultraviolent radiation and infrared radiation right on the edges of the visible light spectrum? It's there, but we can't see it. Because our sight, like our hearing sense, is very, very limited.

And so it happened, right in the middle of sound class. I was sitting in the front row, my eyes (unlike most of the rest of the class) glued to the sound engineer who was still caught up in the embrace of his love for sound. My mind was uncharacteristically quiet, but that often happens when I'm looking at passion playing out before my eyes.

And suddenly something exploded in my face. It had happened. Scientific principle had clicked. And shaken my insides quite violently.

I looked around. No one had noticed. The class was still slump over. The sound engineer was still going at it. But I would never be the same again.

If our senses are so limited, what makes us think that our understanding of everything isn't? What makes us think that only what we can see or touch or feel is real, and that everything else cannot be? Maybe there are more colours, maybe there are more sounds. We know for a fact that there are and that other living beings around us can sense them. Will you let a dog convince you that there is no such thing as green? Or a painting? Will you let a dog laugh at the senselessness of a Rubic's cube or deny you the rainbow you can see right in front of you? Can you even imagine what existence feels like to a dog? To a fish? To someone with a differently-abled brain and sensory organs? Some creatures can detect electric fields, tell direction based on the Earth's magnetic field (an inbuilt compass!), they can even see in what you think is the dark. Some can see UV and IR radiation the way you and I can see pink. What would you do if you could suddenly see the radio waves around you when you couldn't see them before? What if you could see them in the sky? What would they look like? A new colour? What if you could see them going right through you when you couldn't see them before? Do feelings have a colour? Do they have a sound, or even a temperature, a scent, a texture, a flavour? They say animals can smell fear. How about memories, intentions, intuition, or even sex?

Maybe there are many other ways to exist that we not only live in passive oblivion of but that we actively and sometimes violently deny. And why? Because we cannot detect them? That is like trying to measure time with a ruler. And we don't even know what time is. We don't even know if it exists. We assume it exists because we see change around us. If there is no change, then there is no time? Does change cause time? Is time merely a by-product of change? Bacteria exists not only around us but inside of us. What else may be existing, and in what form, around us? Inside us?

That's what I got from just being introduced to the audible sound spectrum. 20 Hz - 20 kHz. Just a numerical range to the eye, but all the things it could mean... Just one small fact that didn't mean anything by itself, but like a seed that's been planted invisible into fertile soil, it burst out into new life when the conditions were right. When the time was right. Just because you couldn't see it before doesn't mean it wasn't there, waiting, the whole time.


Robin Allen said...

Really a great blog mam! I am learning a lot from your thoughts. The truth about the human limits that proves the vanity of man in this post is truly overpowering and I am going to steel some of it into my brains and my new blog
with your permission?? :) :)

Khadija Ejaz said...

Thank you for the wonderful feedback, Robin, I would be more than honoured.