What the world really looks like

The science show VSauce presents a bewildering hail of facts that change the way you look at the world. They might even change the way you look at looking.

I’ve posted before about the fact that the spectrum of light we see is only a tiny fraction of light’s total spectrum, but I never realized how tiny.

If the entire practical spectrum of wavelengths was laid out linearly from New York to Los Angeles, the visual portion we see would only be the size of 100 nanometers.

This chart necessarily distorts the scale. The rainbow in the middle should really be so tiny you can't see it.

This chart necessarily distorts the scale. The rainbow in the middle representing visible light should be so tiny you can’t see it.

So there’s the light we see, and then there’s light that we can’t see. Radio waves and microwaves are really just different frequencies of light, or what scientists call “electromagnetic waves”. The full spectrum goes from a wavelength of 1,000 meters (extremely low-frequency radio waves) to 0.0000000000001 meters (gamma rays). Visible light goes from .0000004 meters (purple) to .0000007 meters (red). The difference between 400 nanometers and 700 nanometers is nothing compared to the size of the whole spectrum.


If the whole crazy rainbow of electromagnetic waves had a chart as big as the distance from LA to New York, the visible light part of the spectrum would be the size of the AIDS virus (green dots), and it would be about nine feet from the start of the line.

So that’s how small a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum we see.

Then again, maybe just laying out the full range of practical wavelengths doesn’t really give a meaningful idea of how “big” the spectrum is. It could be that visible light is a bigger sliver than this visualization would suggest. I’m no physicist, so correct me if I’m missing something here. Or just tell me what you think.

Another surprising thing:

A cell-phone camera can reveal that your TV’s remote control is really a flashlight that shines an invisible color. Take video of the remote’s tip while you press its buttons, and you’ll see it lighting up on the cell phone’s screen even though you can’t see it with your own eyes. It’s shining an infrared color that’s invisible to our eyes.

Every time you blow out a candle, you create a rainbow.

The Link: In fact, you create a whole series of rainbows.

The Story:

Dazzling photographer Grover Schrayer captured something I never knew: A candle always goes out in a small blaze of glory.  For a fraction of a second, the vaporized wax particles are carried along the puff of smoke and refract light to create a rainbow pattern.

Like with most of the rest of the universe, I don’t really understand it.


Image by Grover Schrayer

It passes by so fast, you don’t even notice it.  Life is always like that.

I’m reminded of something Krisi Metzen shared, the work of another photographer who captures the beauty of the fleeting moment.  There is beauty in such things because they reveal underlying patterns–the mathematical structures of nature.  These beautiful patterns are everywhere.

Impossible Earth Part 1: Fly Geyser, the best mining accident ever

The Link: Fly Geyser

The Story:

A recurring theme of this blog is that the world is more awesome than you think, full of impossible-seeming things.

On a private plot of land in Nevada is a scene that looks like something from an acid trip or 1970s science fiction book cover.  But it’s real.


Man, what am I even looking at here? (image from Wikipedia)

Not quite natural, not quite man-made, it’s the result of the landowners drilling a well and accidentally hitting a huge geothermal water pocket.  The area has been erupting with mineral-rich steam for nearly a century, forming those bizarre rainbow-hued shapes.

Why a goldfish appreciates art more than you do

The link: The Perfect Yellow, and more

The Story:

There are colors we can’t see.  All around us, every day we’re missing out on something that certain other members of the animal kingdom take for granted.

Just like dogs can hear sounds outside our range of hearing, animals like birds and the boring old goldfish can see colors beyond what’s visible to us.

In terms of the full spectrum of light, we’re practically blind.  The light that’s visible to us is a tiny part of what’s out there.

Electromagnetic radiation

From ultraviolet to visible light to radio waves, they’re all different kinds of the same thing.

Some of the birds you see outside might look drab, but actually have brilliant colors in the part of the spectrum beyond what we can see.  They’re seeing something we can’t even imagine.

The NPR show RadioLab has an awesome story on this unseen rainbow.

Key points are:

  • An American scientist, Jay Neitz, has succeeded in giving the ability to see the color red to an animal formerly unable to see it.
  • He’s working on ways to bring color to colorblind people.
  • Neitz also says it might be possible to give people the ability to perceive colors beyond the normal human range.
  • But there may already be such people in the world.  There are some rare women (normal-looking mutants called tetrachromats) who were born with extra color receptors in their eyes, enabling them at least in principle to see extra color.

The Internet has allowed the discovery of such people to happen.  Before, it was much harder for researchers to connect with the small percentage of the population with this genetic variation.  British neuroscientist Gabriele Jordan has been searching for such people for two decades.  If you think you might be one, and ever plan to be in England, you can contact her.

Megan Arquette is a blogger and possible tetrachromat who was featured on a Japanese science show earlier this year.

Another is an Australian artist named Concetta Antico, whose genetics Jay Neitz is studying.

Study of tetrachromacy is still in its infancy.  Someday within our lifetimes, it may be possible for ordinary people to see what’s been right in front of us all along.  The limits of our perceptions represent a clear and definable limit to the human imagination. You can’t imagine what a bird sees any more than a congenitally blind person can imagine the color blue.

But we’re beginning to push those limits.