Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dr. Thursday's Post

Before we begin, an observation: If you went to Mass on Sunday, you may have been surprised - as I was - to hear the reading from Genesis about how in Eden, after the eating of the forbidden fruit, "their eyes were opened". I certainly didn't plan that juxtaposition. I wonder what eerie parallel will happen this week. Hee hee.

If I had my own blogg again (which seems ever more unlikely due to, uh, matters beyond my control) I could probably fill several gigs of your disk space with comments about the eye, eyesight, light, and a variety of related matters. As a Roman Catholic, a scientist-without-restrictive-adjective, a Chestertonian, and a worshipper of He-Who-Is-Light-From-Light, the whole thing is just about as exciting and interesting and inspiring an idea as one could look for. (And then there's water. And food. But I mustn't get off topic.)

For example, I am told there are about 150 million rods and cones - the light-detection cells - in the human retina. However, I am also told there are only about ONE million neurons in the optic nerve. So, on the average, the signals from 150 detectors have to be funnelled down into just one message-carrying line. Hm. (I omit several pages of discussion, but if you want a bit more see here for another view.)

I am also told that it is possible, under the right conditions, for a person to sense as few as five photons - maybe even just one! I understand there are arrangements to handle the brightness and dimness, not only by changing the aperture (the size of the pupil) but by the "adaptation" of the various sensors themselves...

And then there's that thing about colour. Though we can hear well over nine octaves of different frequencies, we can see only a little less than an octave's worth of colours. But what a variety of colours there are! And how they affect each other - speaking of AMBER, the "amber waves" look lots more amber in front of those "purple mountain majesties" - so that means there's "colour-in-itself" but also "colour-in-its-neighbourhood"... The other sense of that word "colour" (the racial sense, or "Black" and "White") might make some uncomfortable, but in talking about the eye, we see their united and simultaneous importance: the eyeball is white to reflect extra light away, but behind the white (inside) is a deep black to absorb any stray light - all this, like every man-made camera - arranged so that the only light hitting the retina comes in as focussed by the lens, shuttered down by the iris, and aimed by the six wonderful opposing muscles...

Ahem. But for today, since we are trying to talk about GKC's Orthodoxy, I would like to consider the strange paradox that there are certain things we can see - things which appear to be the most tiny and subtle of sights, and yet are really among the most gigantic and vast things in existence. Oh, "science", you moan. Or (from the other side of the hall, or the brain) you scream "fairy-tales". Well - as you shall see in a future chapter, either you must have science or you must have fantasy. (Chestertonians have both...) You can say it is all magic, or you can say it is all physics. But you cannot ignore these things and go outdoors at night - who would dare? This may sound mystifying at the moment, but it is thoroughly in keeping with GKC's vignette we examined last week: the Man Who Discovered England. Today, we must go a step further in our adventure...

Click to read more, if you dare.
In the next, and last, little segment of GKC's "Introduction In Defence of Everything Else", he stresses that he is NOT trying to make jokes, riddles, paradoxes - he is not being "flippant" about what he is writing. So much of his writing has that flavour - one of the great detractors of GKC calls this "Verbal Fireworks" - pretty, noisy, soon over, and futile. But others will contend (as I do) that this is a secondary effect, deriving from his work on the primary material. As Falkor the Luck-Dragon states in The Neverending Story, "All the languages of joy are related." And so they are! When GKC begins to examine something, be it a doorknocker (in Lunacy and Letters) or a traffic light (called a "signal-box" in Heretics CW1:55) he pulls off the veil - the veil over the thing itself, or over his own eyes, and ours too - and suddenly it is seen in a whole new light. It stands revealed. We see it, and so we know it. This may be GKC the Good Magician:
It is true, of course, that marvels, even marvels of transformation, illustrate the noblest histories and traditions. But we should notice a rather curious difference which the instinct of popular legend has in almost all cases kept. The wonder-working done by good people, saints and friends of man, is almost always represented in the form of restoring things or people to their proper shapes.
[GKC ILN Nov 22 1913 CW29:588]
Or it may be GKC the Scientist:
If the mediaeval mystic ever did argue about angels standing on a needle, at least he did not argue as if the object of angels was to stand on a needle; as if God had created all the Angels and Archangels, all the Thrones, Virtues, Powers and Principalities, solely in order that there might be something to clothe and decorate the unseemly nakedness of the point of a needle. But that is the way that modern rationalists reason. The mediaeval mystic would not even have said that a needle exists to be a standing-ground for angels. The mediaeval mystic would have been the first to say that a needle exists to make clothes for men. For mediaeval mystics, in their dim transcendental way, were much interested in the real reasons for things and the distinction between the means and the end. They wanted to know what a thing was really for, and what was the dependence of one idea on another. And they might even have suggested, what so many journalists seem to forget, the paradoxical possibility that Tennis was made for Man and not Man for Tennis.
[GKC The Thing CW3:167-8]
You will, I am sure, be puzzling over that last quote. Why does Doctor Thursday say he is talking about Science and then quote some nonsense about medieval mystics?

For a very good reason, O dear reader. Because one must be a mystic before one can hope to be a scientist. One must humble one's self before the universe, and take the needle - the rock, the plant, or the star - for what it is - if one is to know it for itself. Which is both the ancient meaning (Latin: scientia = knowledge) as well as the modern one, for Science. Why do I say "humble"? Because one removes one's self (one's thought, feelings, concerns, and, to the extent possible, even one's own senses) from the matter at hand, in order that one may find the truth of the thing.

What is the "thing", then, that GKC is going to look at, see, know, and ponder in this book? It is what he calls "orthodoxy" - which is used here in its old sense: Greek: straight/right/true opinion/judgement. (It is not tied to the thorny issue of primacy or ecclesial structure; this is not about Greek or Russian Orthodoxy; one might say it is the lower-case sense of the word.) He explains very carefully, in order that another sort of argument (or fist-fight) be prevented in advance:
When the word "orthodoxy" is used here it means the Apostles' Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed. [CW1:215]
He immediately follows this restriction of study with another, framed in a rather different manner, and well worth some study:
I have been forced by mere space to confine myself to what I have got from this creed; I do not touch the matter much disputed among modern Christians, of where we ourselves got it. This is not an ecclesiastical treatise but a sort of slovenly autobiography. [Ibid., emphasis added]
If that last line were placed in more college textbooks and popular novels, we would perhaps be quite a bit further ahead - at least we would hear one truthful sentence. (You note that I've quoted it previously; indeed, all I can do is tell you my own thoughts about this book...)

But we have skipped a few paragraphs. GKC gives an alternative phrasing to his "Man Who Discovered England" parable. It is thoroughly Chestertonian, because he reveals that he once had hopes of having his own chapter in his previous book, but found he would not fit:
I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it. I did strain my voice with a painfully juvenile exaggeration in uttering my truths. And I was punished in the fittest and funniest way, for I have kept my truths: but I have discovered, not that they were not truths, but simply that they were not mine. When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom. It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion. The man from the yacht thought he was the first to find England; I thought I was the first to find Europe. I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy..[CW1:214, emphasis added]
What a superb explanation.

You are perhaps still wondering about the dangling participle (oh, sorry; that's not what it is called) - the unresolved chord I left in my little prelude. You know - the thing that looks small but is really big? You may have guessed it already - I mean the stars. It is little wonder that the pagans worshipped the sun, they knew it gave light and warmth, was dramatic in its birth, glorious in its death - the right sense of this is fully supported by no less an authority than St. Francis of Assisi, who wrote:
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made,
And first my lord Brother Sun,
Who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
["The Canticle of the Creatures"]
It is nearly beyond belief, in an almost ridiculous extravagance of fantasy, to go out at night and try to affirm that all those tiny pinpoints of light (points where the angels dance?) are really and truly utterly gigantic nuclear furnaces of terrible power and glory. (Yes, I am sure that's the dance the angels do...) Yes. It is time to begin our looking, our study, our observation:
"Treading fearfully amid the growing fingers of the earth, I raised my eyes, and at the next moment shut them, as at a blow. High in the empty air blazed and streamed a great fire, which burnt and blinded me every time I raised my eyes to it. I have lived many years now under this meteor of a fixed Apocalypse, but I have never survived the feelings of that moment. Men eat and drink, buy and sell, marry, are given in marriage, and all the time there is something in the sky at which they cannot look. They must be very brave."
["A Crazy Tale" CW14:70]
But then - as we shall hear GKC shortly tell us, "The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid." [CW1:231] But then that is how science works.

And if, perhaps, in that line you hear an echo of St. Paul: "Christ Jesus in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" [Col 2:3, emphasis added] you will begin to realize just how wonderful this adventure is - and to WHOM it will lead: "But unto you that fear My Name, the Sun of justice shall arise..." [Mal 4:2]

--Dr. Thursday

PS That last bit brings up another one of those odd phrases we bounce around in Chestertonia: "The question about 'Home' is to be asked with Who, not What or Where."


  1. Here's something I've wondered about for years. The human ear can recognize corresponding notes in different octaves. If we could see more than one "octave" of light, would we recognize corresponding colors in those other octaves? Would we observe "color scales" in which red, orange, yellow, etc are repeated -- different yet somehow the same? I can't imagine how the hypothesis could ever be tested, but the question continues to tantalize.

  2. The two detection schemes in use (ear vs. eye) seem to be too dissimilar to permit such a thing. Here is a gross over-simplification:

    In the eye, color is detected by three different sensory compounds in three different kinds of cone - and that's all. The relative "pitch" is a complex "comparison" of the three inputs from the three varieties of cone (color detectors) in the retina.

    In the ear, pitch is detected by a "tuned" array of hairs in the cochlea, vibrating in synchrony. The octave of a given pitch is a doubling or halving of the frequency, and these are related physically, as a note makes a string vibrate - halving its length doubles its frequency.

    But that does NOT work for the "pitches" of light - the chemicals are tuned absolutely (by the electronic arrangement of the color-sense chemicals) to a specific frequency; they detect a "range" centered on that specific "note" - so (for example) a given "yellow" is "read" as "this much red, that much green".

    If we were to "see" outside the visual "octave" - e.g. infrared or ultraviolet - there would have to be other chemicals to sense these pitches (as, I think, some insects have). By this reasoning, then we would "see" a whole NEW color for an octave shift... as (I am told) some with perfect pitch actually discern within sounds.

    Note: I would be delighted to hear from physiologists who really know about this and can direct us to additional detail... it is MOST wonderful to ponder.

    --Dr. Thursday

    PS: there are such things as chemical "transposers" of light - the real name for them is "fluorescent materials" - e.g. lapis solaris, some forms of calcite and other minerals, zinc sulfide (with certain impurities) and so on. Any nearby fluorescent light tube is "transposing" the "ultraviolet pitches" into the visible "octave"... Which is very cool to consider, given my topic, because it is a physical example of "light from light"!!!

  3. One other curiosity: In a certain sense (no pun intended) when we have two colors which precisely invert signals of the three kinds of cone cells, we consider them "complementary colors" - graphics people usually term them red vs. cyan, yellow vs. blue, green vs. magenta. This is more akin to the effects of the famous "circle of fifths" than to "octaves", but it is still curious - one might have some fun mapping the audio circle to the video circle... let me know if you try it.

    --Dr. Thursday

  4. I am also curious because it seems as if some people are more color conscious that other people.

    My husband, for example, is often consulted about his color expertise. He seems to see more color variation than others.

    In addition, my daughter noticed that she sees different colors with her different eyes (they appear different shades) and when we mentioned this to the eye doctor, she merely agreed, and said my daughter was particularly attentive to this, but that it was perfectly normal.

    Individual variations, but still interesting to observe.


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