Monday, June 19, 2006


This is an interesting article about a blind man receiving sight after nearly half a century of darkness, recounted by Oliver Sachs as an almost mythic tale of gain and loss. It's obvious that Sachs gave his patient the alias 'Virgil' for a reason.

In a similar vein, I've often wondered how a time traveller from the past would, literally, perceive our world. A Wellsian traveller from the Victorian era might not have too many problems. But imagine, say, Leonardo da Vinci plonked down in a modern city. It's possible that some unusual objects, like sleek cars or stylised plastic toys, might actually be invisible, as his brain tried and failed to relate them to anything he knew. It may be that only when Leonardo is told "this red curvaceous metal thing is a self-propelled carriage" or "this bulbous yellow thing is a model of a distorted man named Homer Simpson" can he find the frame of reference to start accepting and interpreting the raw data his eyes have collected.

A traveller from even earlier (Pythagoras, for example) might be almost blind as he tries, and fails, to recognise anything familiar, except for an earthenware vase here and a Doric column there.

To use a more subtle example of the same phenomenon, whenever I move the furniture around in my living room, I realise that I don't usually see it as a big square room with solid bits of furniture sitting in it, but as a series of undulating planes, where the undulations are called "armchair" or "coffee table". Visually and in a sense viscerally, the corner of the room ceases to exist when it's blocked by a piece of furniture. That piece of furniture becomes the new "corner". Similarly I have no sense of potential space under the couch. It's not a large but discrete object; it's like Uluru, a part of the landscape that happens to be taller than the area around it. Each item in the room redefines the parameters of its space, in such a way that when the furniture is removed (for painting or a big party) the resultant space is alien, and full of possibilities that would never occur to me when it's furnished.


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