Wonders never cease

9 January 2015


Wonders never cease.

The expression itself often comes wrapped in wonder. You hear it after a Hmm… or a Whoa! Because even though it’s a practically universal truth that wonders never cease, we seem always to be astonished when we encounter one. As if wonder were scarce. As if the world’s capacity to dazzle and awe were anything other than endless.

But of course that’s the nature of wonder, to puncture our current reality, which we always think is as big as reality can be, and show us a glimpse of what lies outside our bubble. Science is doing this all the time, mostly behind the scenes. White-coated scientists eke out miracles tucked away in labs, waiting for a ray of sunshine to cast their work into its moment in the light. But I don’t think most scientists believe that creating wonder is part of their job. They find so much joy in their own searches and they dig so deep into the particulars, they often don’t notice the gulf between their own curiosity and the rest of us. Yet science needs wonder, because wonder lights the fuse that burns towards discovery.

So it’s refreshing to see these “travel posters” by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a deliberate attempt for a science pioneer to cultivate the kind of fascination that brings us all along. Branded as being from the “Exoplanet Travel Bureau,” they visualize life on new planets being discovered by Kepler, NASA’s planet-hunting telescope that seeks out other Earth-like planets in our galaxy.


There are many things to love about these, not least their charming retro design and lighthearted tone. But what I love most is that they use facts not as a way to speak to our intellect, but to our emotions. They take measures of gravity, visible light spectrum, and solar relationships, and they recontextualize them in human terms: an experience of super-gravity, a rainforest of red foliage, a land of two shadows. By co-opting that singularly contemporary language of enticement—advertising—NASA makes these places seem inviting, rather than eerie, giving us new appreciation for the staggering variety of worlds beyond our own.

At root, wonder is simply a dance between the strange and the familiar. Here, NASA creates wonder by making the strange familiar: using a known visual and verbal language (posters, destination renderings, taglines) to underscore the oddities many light years away. But it can also work the other way, by making the familiar strange, as in one of my favorite anthropological essays, Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” which I won’t ruin for you if you haven’t read it by describing it here. Either way, collapsing the space between the foreign and the quotidian often yields some kind of aha!

I don’t know whose idea it was at NASA to create these posters, but we need more of this kind of clever. We may never get to see our two shadows on Kepler-16b, or see Kepler-186f’s jungles blush red like Vermont in October, but just knowing they exist makes us able to see our own green, regular gravity, single-sun planet with new eyes. It’s nice to be reminded that wonders never cease in the universe. But just as delightful is to realize our own world is a wonder too.


Download the posters in high-res here.
h/t Ben Swire

Glasses that give color to the colorblind

18 February 2013

As a color-lover, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be colorblind. What would I miss, beyond the boundaries of my own visible spectrum? Would I understand the lack intuitively, or only by comparison with others?

The short film above, “Ishihara” by Yoav Brill, offers an emotional peek into the world of someone with severe color blindness. In the film, Brill cleverly co-opts the visual language of the Ishihara test, a series of dotted color plates used to determine whether someone has problems with their color vision. I’ve always found the Ishihara test to be joyful-looking, like clusters of colored bubbles, though bittersweet that something so beautiful could be the confirmation of bad news for someone. And I imagine it must be frustrating to know that there’s information hidden in the pattern, and yet be completely unable to detect it. (If you are color normal, you will see the numbers 6, 12, 2, and 42 in the charts below.)

Ishihara plates

On the other hand, when I listened to this episode of Radiolab, I realized that lots of animals have better color vision than we do. Birds have one extra type of cone cell in their eyes, opening up a world of different colors than we have. And if that sounds amazing, think of butterflies, some types of which have seven cones, or the mantis shrimp, the organism with the world’s most complex eye, which has sixteen cone cells! Those guys must have a technicolor life!

All of which is to say that the colors that exist in the world are far more numerous than we can perceive, whether we are color blind or color normal. Maybe one day scientists will figure out a way to let us see what birds see. But more significantly, just recently scientists have figured out a way to help color blind people see more normally.

Neuroscientist Mark Changizi (whose work I first wrote about here) has written extensively on the evolutionary history of vision, and why everything from our depth perception to our written language evolved the way it did. His work on color vision is particularly interesting. He has put forth an alternative (or perhaps complementary) theory to the idea that human red-green color vision evolved to help us find nourishment, instead proposing that we evolved the ability to see color to understand the health and emotions of the people around us. Based on that work, a few years ago Changizi co-founded a company called 2AI Labs and started development of a set of glasses called O2Amps designed to amplify the visibility of blood oxygenation and other factors that help make these physical and emotional states more apparent.

Hospitals are using the glasses to help with diagnoses — they can make bruising under the skin from trauma and other disorders more obvious — and to help nurses find a patient’s vein. Another potential application is for security officers such as the TSA; the glasses may help officers better identify people in an agitated state. Once the glasses were released, though, Changizi and his collaborators began hearing from color blind people who had put them on and experienced the world in an entirely new way.

Here’s a quote from Dan Bor, a red-green color blind neuroscientist who tested the glasses:

I’ve just received a couple of special specs to attempt to reduce my colour blindness, from Mark Changizi and O2Amp. When I first put one of them on [the Oxy-Iso,], I got a shiver of excitement at how vibrant and red lips, clothes and other objects around me seemed. I’ve just done a quick 8 plate Ishihara colour blindness test. I scored 0/8 without the specs (so obviously colour blind), but 8/8 with them on (normal colour vision)! I’m pretty thrilled and can’t wait to explore more of the world with the specs over the next few days.

The glasses aren’t without some issues — while red-green perception improves, other areas of color vision suffer. Bor observes that while red and blue were far more clear and intense while wearing the glasses (and I love that he says that lips looked red like he’d never seen them before), some shades of yellow seemed to disappear, and Changizi cautions that the glasses shouldn’t be worn while driving, as the yellow light in a traffic signal could become invisible. As magical as it seems to give color to the color blind, it’s not a pure gain, as the enhancement in one part of the spectrum comes by “spreading out” the loss across other regions. Still, Bor notes that it’s amazing to be able to have a sense of what someone who is color normal might see, and even better to have the choice. (He says he’d bring the glasses to an art gallery, but probably wouldn’t wear them every day.)

When I see anything, art or science, that can expand the boundaries of our world and give more vibrancy to it, I feel such a sense of awe. It’s like joy is hiding in front of us, sometimes in plain sight. And then one day someone just comes along and reveals it. A pretty wonderful world we live in, don’t you think?

Sources: Changizi blog and Scientific American
Images: Ishihara plates no. 1, 13, 19, and 23 from Wikipedia

Manmade rainbows

21 October 2012


About a month ago I promised more rainbows, and here they are. This rainbow, produced by the artist Michael Jones McKean for the Bemis Center in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, is a kind of controlled magic. Like Berndnaut Smilde’s indoor clouds, which I wrote about back in April, McKean’s rainbow attempts to bring something elusive and ephemeral into our grasp. I love these lines from the artist’s statement:

Whether a majestic arch in the sky that appears after a short spring shower or a small, homespun rainbow created with a garden hose on a sunny day, a rainbow operates as an egalitarian visual experience. It is by nature temporary, undetermined, and wonderful. The Rainbow exists somewhere between real and representation, actual and artifice.

It’s an interesting thing, this space between real and representation. Is McKean’s rainbow (or Smilde’s cloud) as joyful as a real rainbow? It takes advantage of the same physical phenomena. It is materially identical to a natural rainbow. And yet, part of the joy of real rainbows is that they can’t be summoned — they are by definition elusive, serendipitous. And actually, this is part of what makes them, in McKean’s words, “an egalitarian visual experience.” No one owns the means of rainbow production. We are equally entitled to its mercurial visitations.

More from McKean:

Although the symbol of a rainbow has been co-opted, politicized, branded and commodified, an actual prismatic rainbow still has an ability to jolt us from the everyday. It feels hopeful, yearning, optimistic, ghost-like and meaningful. Whether perceived immediately as an artwork or not, the experience holds the power to connect diverse publics through an intangible, shared encounter.

Michael jones mckean web 06


Michael jones mckean web 07 5


McKean isn’t the first artist to attempt to manufacture rainbows. In fact, while researching my last post on Andy Goldsworthy, I discovered this:


Rainbow splash
hit water with heavy stick
bright, sunny, windy
River Wharfe, Yorkshire
22 [23?] December 1980

Perhaps it is only human to try to extend and expand the joys we observe in the wild, to conjure it in whatever ways we are able. And you know, I’m not sure I’d want to be human if we didn’t.

Images: photos of McKean’s piece, certain principles of light and shapes between forms, courtesy of the artist. The last image of Goldsworthy is from the Goldsworthy archive.

Via: Designboom, with thanks to Maggie

PS: For those worried about wasted water in McKean’s rainbow project, read below. And cheer up!

The artwork will solely utilize captured rainwater and will be powered with renewable sources. Leading up to the exhibition, extensive modifications to the Bemis Center’s five-story, repurposed industrial warehouse took place — creating a completely self-contained water harvesting and large-scale storage system. Throughout the project cycle, collected and recaptured stormwater will be filtered and stored in six above-ground, 10,500 gallon water tanks.

certain principles of light and shapes between forms

Craving wonder

17 April 2012


In the summer of 1997 I went to Switzerland. I was seventeen and awed by everything there: the impossibly green mountains, the richness of the food, the brightly colored money. But by far the most magical experience I had was ice skating through a cloud.

The peaks of the alps are so high that clouds at times will huddle in small hollows on a mountain’s surface. (Little do we suspect, from a distance, this intimacy between clouds and mountains – that despite their seeming aloofness they are passionate lovers sharing high-altitude secrets.) In the town of Leysin, the skating rink sat in one of these catenaries, past the town on a downslope. A covered structure, open on the sides, the rink was positioned so that a breeze would draw wisps of cloud through the space. We looped through them, in and out of the whiteness, enchanted.

To be so close to a cloud, to be literally inside it, is a fleeting kind of joy. Artist Berndnaut Smilde brings something like this to galleries, carefully controlling the humidity and temperature to bring real clouds into being for a few minutes. Watch this video to see the process in action. Indoors, the cloud seems to be many things at once. It’s a luminous piece of sky, yet also an interloper. It feels more precious than it would “in the wild.” And yet it also feels out of place, confused even, like a lamb split off from the flock. It teeters on the edge of joyful and eerie, a conjurer’s trick that we embrace cautiously, with visceral awe.


Joyful and eerie: it’s an odd pairing. How is it possible that joy can come to us bound together with fear? And what determines whether what we end up feeling is wonder or trepidation?

It’s a contradiction many have wrestled with. The philosopher Edmund Burke called it the sublime, and wrote of conflicting impulses towards attraction and fear. Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner describe it as awe, an emotion combining the perception of vastness or great power with a need for accommodation, a need to understand the phenomenon and bring it into line with our worldview. Awe creates an awareness that something forceful is at play, something with uncertain mechanisms and consequences, and our natural instinct at encountering such unknowns is to feel fear. But because we are human and inherently opportunistic, and because we are not certain if the unknowns are threatening, we also feel curiosity. It is a state of repulsion and attraction all at once.

Aesthetics have a big say in which force wins out. Imagine you are standing in a field, alone and far from shelter. A great black cloud-like apparition looms on the horizon. It is coming towards you, and doing so abnormally fast. How do you feel? Now imagine yourself in the same field, but replace the cloud with a colorful double rainbow. How would you describe the difference in how you feel? Both are strange events, both vast, both require accommodation. But through the color, form, and mass of each, your unconscious assesses threat level and tips your emotional state towards anxiety or towards wonder.

It’s easy to see why we would feel awe and fear at potentially dangerous things – this feels sensibly adaptive. An emotion that primes us to take cover has probably saved enough necks to earn its right to a spot on the genome. But why have wonder? Why have an emotion specifically attuned to things that are strange and intense, yet benign?

I believe we have wonder because it lets us know when the laws and limits of our world have been transcended, and opens the way to new frontiers of possibility. Wonder is a signal that there has been magic in our midst. It pokes a hole in our worldview, and tempts us to investigate, becoming a powerful spark for curiosity that paves the way towards new discoveries.

As a culture we tend to undervalue wonder, but the craving for it is deeply valid. It is not a distraction from purposeful work – it may instead be the catalyst for starting it. A desire to witness magic is an impulse towards the expansion of the mind, towards the improvement of the human condition. At the root of our love for rainbows, comets, fireflies, and miracles is a small reservoir of belief that the world is bigger and more amazing than we had dreamed it could be. And if we are to be creative and hopeful, then feeding this reservoir is vital.

So go look for impossible beauty, implausible joy. Seek it out even if it doesn’t seem to have an immediate purpose. And then just be curious. You don’t have to control wonder; you only have to seek it, and be open to what it shows you.

Via: Smilde’s Nimbus II spotted by @brainpicker

Images: from here and here


Joyspotting: rainbow ants

8 August 2011

These arresting photos of ants come via the Daily Mail. The photographer, Mohammed Babu, set up this experiment after his wife noticed that some ants had turned white from eating spilled milk. By setting up colored drops of sugar water on sheets of paraffin in his garden, Babu was able to create a palette of rainbow ants, their transparent abdomens revealing their latest meal.

There’s an interesting tension here. We’re not used to seeing insects as joyful, and usually regard them with disgust. (Though this may be a cultural response here in the West, as many other cultures do not have this response and in fact view insects as a perfectly acceptable food source.) But in this case, color seems to override our disgust, and the magic of the ants’ transparent bodies revealing the color opposes our instinct towards disgust with wonder.

When you think about it this way, there’s a powerful design principle in here. Aesthetics can create a kind of fascination that overrides our intrinsic responses, even ones as physical and intense as disgust. It would be interesting to see how this fascination could be developed to help us change behavior based on such instinctual responses – not just disgust, but also perhaps anxiety and fear. If we can design something so that it produces a conflicting response to the brain’s natural alarm bells, this tension can trigger a need for accommodation – a need to fit this new occurrence into the person’s worldview. And that need for accommodation, accompanied by delight, wonder, or curiosity, is often the first step towards a changed mind.

Photos: Mohammed Babu
Daily Mail:  “Tasting the Rainbow”