Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2161:
WHEN THE EYE PLAYS TRICKS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, our eyes trick us. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Years ago I was hit by a car, which then fled the scene. A passing driver, a lawyer, saw it happen and called for help. He later told me he would never again regard eye-witness testimony the same way. What he'd seen was that unclear in his own mind.

Well, small wonder. We have to encode reality if it's to fit into our memory. We have nothing like the capacity for a complete 64-mm Technicolor record of our lives. Instead, we compress experience into known algorithms. When we see something foreign to our experience, we first try to fit it into a familiar box.

William Langewiesche plays that idea in his book, Inside the Sky. He's piloted every sort of light and ultra-light airplane. So he's acutely aware of how hard it is to interpret Earth when we first see it from above. His passengers, who've been looking at clouds from 35,000 feet, often have a hard time interpreting the view from only a few thousand feet. Mountains look wrong; plains and oceans can be hard to tell apart.

Years ago, a friend flew us over Eastern Washington's wheat fields at a few hundred feet. When we abruptly passed the rim of the Snake River Canyon, Earth fell and away we seemed to hurtle a thousand feet upward on a magic elevator. Was that exhilaration or terror? Actually, I'm not sure I know the difference.

Artists have always meddled with reality. Many people find Dali or Picasso profoundly disturbing. Or Goya, for that matter. Now the new Low-Brow school of art is gaining traction. It began with artists like Robert Crumb in Mad Magazine. Try it on line. You'll see another way that artists find reality by bending vision.

I recall a lovely aerial photo of a desert caravan -- camels standing out sharply against the yellow sand. Only something about the perspective was out of whack. Then I realized: I was seeing shadows cast by the slanting light -- the tops of the camels could barely be seen. The other day, I found that I could photograph myself in the reflection from a horse's eye. The unreality of those photos draws a very mixed reaction. A landscape framed by a horse's eyelashes, hardly fits into anyone's memory categories.

detail of reflection in a horse's eye

At the same time, we have to be able to trust what we see. Who wants reality to lurch off into some region between the hard earth and the blue sky? We're in trouble if we can't stay anchored -- if we cannot color inside the lines. Yet invention must involve cutting anchor chains, and seeing things that seem not to fit.

How to do that? I'll suggest an exercise. Walk your neighborhood with a camera. Look at everything comfortable and familiar. Then set yourself the task of bringing back one photo of something which, properly framed and isolated, makes no sense to the viewer. If we can tune our eye to see what others do not see, if we can bring back a piece of unreal reality, then we've remade the world and we've remade ourselves. As I say, it's exhilarating, but there is good reason to find it frightening.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


W. Langewiesche, Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight. (New York: Pan-theon Books, 1998).

My thanks to UH Librarian Catherine Essinger for her counsel, and to Herman Detering at whose ranch I found myself reflected in a horse's eye.


In a horse's eye
The Sisters, Oregon
Above the clouds
(all photos, other than the camel link, by JHL)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.