As I was looking at the sky last evening, I realized that I had not seen any stars in a long time. It is because of all the light pollution generated by our numerous illuminated buildings, street lights, automobiles and electric signs. Cities glow and pulse with light.
So how do I know that stars exist? How many other phenomena am I unaware of because I have only 5 senses with a very limited reach?
An eagle can see a rabbit from two miles away. I also learned that they adjust the curvature of their eyes as they descend to attack so prey is always in sharp focus. Bats navigate by echolocation which is completely alien to us. Vampire bats have proteins in their noses that lead them to food.
Our sense of smell is very rudimentary. Often it stops at pleasant or unpleasant and does not reveal edibility or harmfulness. Elephants’ feet and trunks are sensitive enough to pick up vibrations created by other elephants as far as 10 miles away.
Our hearing is also problematic. We often do not know how to follow it to its source or whether it signals danger or not. Our experience is often limited by the size and distance of the object being heard.
Because we long ago realized that much of the world is hidden from us, we knew we had to build instruments to expand our search abilities and learn the truth. But what is the truth of a star or the truth of a tree for that matter? Still we have to strive to understand that elusive reality.
Microphones and ultrasound devices capture unheard sounds. Smoke detectors can smell fires. Thermometers can measure exact temperatures beyond cold or hot. Litmus paper can tell if a substance is an acid or a base. In 1610 Galileo invented the telescope to examine the Milky Way and its vast collection of stars. He suspected that there existed many more heavenly bodies beyond our galaxy.
Since then telescopes have grown in size and complexity. The Hubble telescope which is suspended high in space is a most productive scientific instrument. It whirls around the earth and takes pictures through the haze of the atmosphere. It is only the size of a bus but it can look back to when the universe was only 3% of its current age. It can spot the dark energy that exists in space.
We have enlarged our horizons and will continue to expand our ability to apprehend and comprehend the world because we have one sense that is truly unlimited, our sense of curiosity.
It’s interesting because it begs the old ontological question. If I can’t sense it, dose it exist? It is because our senses are so limited.
As you mention that’s why we have microscopes, telescopes, voltmeters, gieger counters and cyclotrons.
On the other hand what about those with extraordinary senses? Is that a gift or a curse?
As usual Simone makes me feel better in these gloomy times. She is one of the most thoughtful people I have ever known.
I just love your blogs. These last 2 months were especially interesting. I have special relationships to stars (one of the best parts of the nights in my Swiss village) and animals too – I talk to little squirrels on the Berkeley Marina every day, but it’s more emotional than scientific.
As always, you have written such an interesting blog. For some reason, I especially loved the photo and information about elephants.
As for humans, thank goodness there have been people with enough curiosity to create ways to see and learn about our universe.
I am also grateful to the curiosity of medical researchers. I think they see a problem as a puzzle to be solved. Beautiful!
it’s so wonderful to think about the powers of the animals around us, that we might spend billions of dollars on research and never understand or accomplish 10% of what they are born to do. I have a cat, so I see so much of how he can do what I can not do. His legs are just 6 inches long, yet he can easily jump 40 inches in the air. My legs are probably 3 feet long, and I can not jump 20 up! His vision is so keen, he sees a spider or a fly from across a… Read more »
I loved this post!
How much of the world around us remains unseen! Given our limited senses, we can only rely on an open mind to explore the world around us. Instruments give us the data, hearts and minds are needed to interpret it.