Monday, May 14, 2018

Illusions all around us

     I’ve long been fascinated by the many illusions we live with, those phenomena that trick us into seeing things not at all as they really are.

     Nowhere is the phantom lake illusion more evident than on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, one of the most otherworldly places I’ve ever been.  Driving out on the white featureless dead-flat expanse you’d swear there was a beautiful lake awaiting just a mile or two away, but as you get closer the ghost lake shimmers and vanishes.  We can sometimes see the same illusion far ahead on a long flat highway, especially in summer heat.

     Stare at a rotating Christmas tree decoration and it can suddenly seem to be turning in the other direction although it’s not.

     I live on a shore of a wide river.  When it’s a hazy day, the far shore seems farther away, but on those rare brassy days when the atmosphere is severe clear, that same shore seems much closer.  That illusion is much like what I experienced from a Chile mountaintop deep in the Atacama Desert, where the night atmosphere was so dry and clear the abundant diamond-bright stars seemed almost touchable.

     Call up a few crisp shots of our moon on your computer.  Why do the craters sometimes appear to be like swollen blisters?  Often, you can simply turn the photo upside down so the light strikes the moon’s surface from a different perspective and the impact craters will then show as the depressions they really are.  It’s magical.  The moon and sun appear to be much larger when near the horizon, but it’s only an illusion; their proximity to familiar horizon features only makes them seem larger.  To prove this, cup your hands closely around the moon when it’s just above the horizon and watch it instantly seem to shrink.

     Then there are those illusions we all constantly see but are mind-numbing to think about.  There is no color on earth or throughout the universe, for example.  Everything is drab and colorless.  Light is only a narrow band in the same broad electromagnetic spectrum that’s shared by invisible microwaves, radio waves, X-rays, gamma rays, infrared, and ultraviolet.  All that differentiates these various waves is wavelength (or frequency).  Our brains interpret various wavelengths within the narrow visible range as different hues.  So the astonishing beauty of rainbows and birds and flowers and rich evergreens against a cobalt-blue sky happens not at all in nature but rather only within our own minds.  Hard to believe but true.

     We fiction writers are perhaps the master intentional illusionists.  Using only black words on white paper, we paint vividly colorful scenes and bring to life nonexistent characters that move and speak and suffer and triumph only within the imaginations of our readers.


1 comment:

  1. I love to read! J.D. Salinger said it best: "It's all an illusion. Nothing lasts forever." I like your blog: Very insightful :)