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Seeing The Unseen

Jack and I were in the pilothouse, 12 feet up and scanning the water ahead of the ferry. We were traveling slower than usual because of the wind, the rain, and the choppy seas. Then, suddenly, I saw what I have never seen before or since, but have longed to see for much of my life. For a brief time, the low eastern sunlight perfectly illuminated the water droplets coming off the rain-battered waves, elucidating every eddy, swirl, and streamline in the air’s motion.

As the Island of our Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance. —John Archibald Wheeler, American Theoretical Physicist

The yearning to actually see air and waterflow has provided much of the energy propelling the Sailing Science Center forward. Indeed, the craving to see the unseen may drive much of science. From seeing subatomic particles to far away galaxies, the desire to see the unseen keeps us going. And it’s not just about big things and small things. We want to see into the future, see into the past, see through walls, and see around corners.

All this leaves us with utter frustration because the amount we can actually see is ludicrously small. To start with, our visual field only comprises about 30% of the visual sphere around us, but within that, we only “see” a tiny fraction of the available electromagnetic spectrum. One estimate puts the figure as low as 0.0035%. The three cones in most people’s eyes give us the ability to see red, green, and blue, but this is nothing compared to a mantis shrimp, with its 16 photoreceptor types. Ultraviolet, infrared, x-rays, and radio waves are all invisible to us.

Everyone is fighting battles you know nothing about. —Tim Ferriss

We also have an urge to see other people; to know what they are doing, saying, and thinking. When we call someone, our tendency may be to think they are available to talk, ignoring that they were probably busy and we might have interrupted them. Our belief that others are not working as hard as we are is supported by many studies that point to our cognitive bias of overestimating our own activity, while underestimating that of others. To us, the unseen worker might be thought not to be working. After all, we can’t see them.

The punch that will knock you out is the one you didn't see coming. – George Foreman

Unseen things can have a devastating impact on us. Gossip, microbes, poisonous gases, electricity, the car in our blind spot, and even gravity, can harm us, all without being seen. We invent narratives to explain our observations. Gods can help us make sense of things and put our minds at ease, while a thousand unseen things are conspiring to do us in. In the end, it may be helpful to grasp and accept that the vast majority of what surrounds us cannot be seen; much of it benefits us, like oxygen and gravity, while much of it can cause us serious harm, like nuclear radiation or the toxic assets held by our local bank.


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