Our Strange Visual Universe
Last post, we thought about what a sound really is, requiring both a pressure transmitting source and a receiving ear assembly to satisfy the definition. Hearing is akin to reading, which requires both a written page and a person who can interpret those marks on the page. Writer and reader are inseparable, and each must trust the other in that symbiosis. Created scenes do not take place on the page but only in the imaginations of the partners. The page merely serves as a transmitter and preserver.
Now let’s think about what sight really is and how it applies to our writing.
We know from high school science there is a broad electromagnetic spectrum that includes a generous range of transmitted and reflected frequencies. We make extensive daily use of this phenomenon. From lowest frequencies to highest, there are radio waves (including TV, microwave, and radar), infrared radiation, ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, and gamma rays. Sandwiched between infrared and ultraviolet there is a relatively narrow frequency band we call visible light. Within that band our retinas can receive frequency waves and our optic nerves can transmit them as electrochemical messages to our astonishing brains, which can instantly differentiate and interpret them as all the millions of things we “see” around us.
It’s a wondrous evolved skill, although it exists not in surrounding nature at all but always and only within our brains and in the brains of many other species as well to varying degree. Eagles can see far better and farther than any human so they can spot prey from altitude. Bees can see in ultraviolet so they can find the flowers that make the best honey. Some creatures, including bats, hamsters, raccoons, and whales, can only see in shades of black and white because that’s all they need to survive and thrive.
There is no color in the Universe. None at all. There are only different frequencies. A rainbow can always and only happen within our minds.
If we could “see” the Universe as it really is, it would be a bewildering chaos of multiple transmitted and reflected electromagnetic frequencies. All the frequencies. We’d see the colors and things we normally do. But we’d also see cell towers and our smart phones bristling with waves. Transmissions beaming at lightspeed to and from passing jetliners. Radar waves bouncing off our vehicles and returning to highway patrol cars. Infrared waves emanating from vehicles and all the people around us and the dogs we’re walking. Gamma rays zooming in from far-off galaxies. Ultraviolet rays streaming from our own private star and attacking our exposed flesh. TV waves filling the air and being soaked up here and there by our rooftop antennas. Flowers in many more hues than we ever thought possible. It would be bizarre in the extreme. But it would be what’s really going on at this moment all around us—and even through our building walls and us.
But thankfully, miraculously, evolution has endowed us with this brain skill we call sight. The ability to interpret just a skinny band of frequencies as colors and myriad shadings and shapes. We even have two eyes to provide critical three-dimensional sight so we can judge how far away things are, although an alien creature might never realize this from observing the daily mayhem on our highways.
The scenes we writers create in our stories are largely visual, although we can and should also call on our other four senses to enhance realism.
The more we visually study the world around us, the more we will perceive in it, and thus the more original and powerful our imagined scenes will become in the imaginations of our readers.
As a delightful secondary benefit, we ourselves will increasingly experience the wonderful world of human-selected frequencies around us as never before.