A Nobel Laureate in Physics Obsesses About Vision


Enough with the practical blogs of late.  It’s time for some entertaining Pi in the Sky.  I admit a shallow attraction to judging a book by its cover, hence my initially being drawn to Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek’s book browsing shelves at B & N last year.  But a book also has to resonate between the covers, and this one didn’t at the time – so back to the shelf it went.

Wilczek Book Cover

Since then however, Frank has been doing some deep thinking about vision, and his recent thoughts on visual perception as featured on The Edge are intriguing:

“The particular thing that I got obsessed with recently is the mismatch between our perception of the most important way we interact with the external world, that is, our perception of light—our vision—and the underlying physical reality. We sample with our eyes a very narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum—basically, one octave out of an infinite keyboard that, moreover, is not just discrete notes but a continuum. We have a reliable, well-tested theory of what light is: electromagnetic radiation. We can compare the reality of what light is to our perception of it. What we see is, as I said, a very narrow band of frequencies. But even within that narrow band, we do a paltry kind of sampling. We sample three different averages of the intensities. This is called trichromatic vision. The most common colorblindness is seeing only two averages.

There are many forms of electromagnetic radiation that are physically different yet look the same to us. There is information that we’re missing, which has two dramatic consequences. First of all, it means that there’s a lot of the visual world—the world we think we know—that we’re missing out on. Secondly, our ability to use that portal to convey information is relatively limited physically. There is much more bandwidth intrinsic to the visible portal than we exploit.

On the other hand, there are creatures that do a much better job of this. There is something called a mantis shrimp, which is a champion in the animal world. It’s a very successful species of underwater, shrimplike animal that exists in hundreds of varieties. All of them have this feature where instead of seeing three averages in the spectrum, they see a dozen or up to sixteen, depending on the variety. They also see down to the ultraviolet, they see some infrared. They have a much richer portal into color information than we do.

It occurred to me—and this may be one of the best ideas I ever had—that we can restore some of that information using modern technology and modern ideas about how information can be conveyed, namely, by encoding different aspects of the missing information as time-dependent modulation of the channels we have. So, open new channels by modulating in ways that are recognizable and that keep the image, the channels we have.

We can start to perhaps see like mantis shrimp, and that will both enrich our perception of the external world and also open up new possibilities for visualization. In quantum mechanics, we learn that the wave functions—the primary description of reality—live in high-dimensional spaces. If you have the wave function for two particles, it lives in a six-dimensional space. That is very hard to visualize.

Chemists could find it very useful if they were able to get a better visualization of things like that, or people dealing with complex datasets that depend on many factors; those naturally live in many dimensional spaces, and it would be very useful to be able to visualize those. Opening up extra channels, extra dimensions of color perception, could be a very good thing. I’ve been working on gadgets, tricks, software, and hardware to implement that.”

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2 thoughts on “A Nobel Laureate in Physics Obsesses About Vision

  1. Wow. This makes good sense. Just as it matters not what you have, but what you do with what you have. It also matters not the data you receive, but how you process it.

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