Light is familiar to us all. It’s the opposite of dark, right? Yet if we look a little deeper, we’ll find that light is a natural phenomenon that actually hides more than it reveals. Look deep enough and we might just find that we’re barely seeing anything at all!
Light, as it turns out, comes in many forms. It’s all the same stuff, but it differs in its wavelength. One bit of light has waves that measure an inch, while other light has waves that measure a mile. And all of these different wavelengths of light have different properties.
More correctly, we’d call light “electromagnetic radiation”. The smallest wavelengths of this light-stuff come in the form of what we call gamma rays. These measure one picometer, which is very, very tiny considering that the smallest atoms measure 62 picometers. On the other end of the spectrum are ELF rays, which measures 100 megameters. This is very, very big, considering that one megameter is about 621 miles long.
Here’s the mind-blowing part. Ready? Consider that light comes in all these wave sizes, ranging from one itsy bitsy picometer to 62,100 miles. Now, how much of that range of light do you think that our eyes can see? In other words, if all of these wavelengths of light are parts of our reality, how much of that reality are we capable of seeing? Ninety-five percent? Eighty?
Actually, our eyes can pick up light that ranges from 400 nanometers to 700 nanometers. This is small. Really small. The tip of a needle could easily fit all the wavelengths of light that we can see. Which means that we are actually seeing less than one percent of reality. Much, much, less than one percent.
So what else is out there, all around us, invisible to our eyes? Well, if we go just a bit beyond our usual range of sight, say down to 300 nanometers, then we’d start to see something extraordinary when we go bird-watching. Chickadees, whose males and females look exactly the same to us, would suddenly be revealed to have colors on them that are literally beyond our imaginations. Crows would as well, and Cedar Waxwings. These colors, of which no human has ever seen, are common sights to our bird-brained kin. And that’s just at the fringes of our range. What would the world look like an inch out from our range? A foot? A mile?
We use some of these wavelengths in our microwave ovens, in our x-rays, and to look out at distant stars and galaxies. But when we show a picture of what a galaxy would look like in ultraviolet, we of course have to draw the picture in our regular old colors of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Our eyes can see nothing else.
Thus, we get only the barest of glimpses into what the world really looks like. Our vision isn’t so much a window to the world as it is a blinder, revealing only the tiniest fraction of visual reality.
Hopefully, you find this exciting rather than frightening. It means that the world is vastly more mysterious than we believe. Even in an age when the internet seems to hold all the answers, the truth is that the world is mostly mystery, still waiting to be discovered by minds keen and creative enough to explore, still waiting to be discovered by minds keen and creative enough to explore nature in new ways.