Friday, March 9, 2012

Don’t Try This at Home

Are you impressed by the afterimage studies done by George Brindley [1] in which he stared at an automobile headlight to observe the effects of afterimages? Did you cringe upon discovering that Alfred Yarbus [2] invented a suction cap to attach optical apparatus to his own eye so as to retinally stabilize the images from that apparatus? Then imagine the following exploration done by Isaac Newton and documented in a recent book by Edward Dolnick [3]:

“To see whether the shape of the eyeball had anything to do with how we perceive color, Newton wedged a bodkin---essentially a blunt-ended nail file---under his own eyeball and pressed hard against his eye. ‘I took a bodkin & put it betwixt my eye & ye bone as neare to ye backside of my eye as I could,’ he wrote in his notebook, as if nothing could be more natural, ‘and pressing my eye with ye end of it…there appeared several darke and coloured circles.’ Relentlessly, he followed up his original experiment with one painful variation after another. What happened, he wondered, ‘when I continued to rub my eye with ye point of ye bodkin’? Did it make a difference ‘if I held my eye and ye bodkin still’? In his zeal to learn about light, Newton risked permanent darkness.” (pp. 48-49)

Newton’s adventurous spirit brought great reward. As Dolnick (p. 74) quotes from I. Bernard Cohen, Newton’s 1672 article in the Transactions of the Royal Society (reporting that white light contains all the colors of the spectrum) was “the first time that a major scientific discovery was announced in print in a periodical.” Previously, it was believed that publication would adulterate the personal benefit of having an idea.

Newton and his scientific contemporaries were adventurous in their ways of thinking as well as in their daring experiments. In the 17th century, it was adventurous to explore the world with experiment at all, because it was considered somewhat heretical to try to read God’s mind and to question the wisdom of the ancients. Dolnick’s articulate description of how “they were not like us” made me ask: What kind of thinking do we now consider living on the edge?

Some hints come from casual examples. A few writers of physics have the ambitious goal to change the very fabric of reality. That is what I call writing on (as opposed to reading) the mind of God. For example, Hermann Minkowski told the 80th Assembly of German Natural Scientists and Physicians in 1908: "Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality." Much more recently, two book titles also declared a rewriting of reality: How I Killed Pluto (by Mike Brown, 2010) and The Dreams that Stuff is Made Of (edited by Stephen Hawking, 2011).

There are trepidations about such hubris. After quoting Minkowski’s famous remark in an introductory chapter to a book on Einstein [4], the anonymous author says in the very next sentence, “Four months later, he [Minkowski] died very prematurely from appendicitis.”

I don’t think Minkowski suffered a divine reprisal, but does adopting his spirit mean we are kidding ourselves? I’ll leave it up to readers of this column to answer the question, “should we try this at home?” Meanwhile, I’ll continue trying to figure out why additivity of color matches doesn’t quite work.

Michael H. Brill

1. G. S. Brindley, Two new properties of foveal after-images and a photochemical hypothesis to explain them, J. Physiol. 164 (1962), 168-179.
2. A. Yarbus, Eye Movements and Vision. New York: Plenum Press, 1967. (Translated from Russian by Basil Haigh. Original Russian edition published in Moscow in 1965.)
3. E. Dolnick, The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World. New York, HarperCollins, 2011.
4. Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity, George Braziller, Publishers in association with the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation, Introduction: Provenance and Description of Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity, p. 18.