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Monday, July 11, 2016

A Muse: Our Sight Exceeds Our Grasp

Like most Science Fiction Romance authors, my desire to write stories set among the stars took hold at a young age. As a kid, I often gazed up at the night sky and wished we could go explore the galaxy like the characters in Star Trek, even though I knew it wasn't likely to happen in my lifetime.

But recently, I had a surprising thought...

We don't have to wait. We're already there!   

The human race--and most of the animals on this planet--have an amazing superpower. It's been passed down through the eons from generation to generation through family and genus and species. It allows us to perceive not only our immediate surroundings, but things on the distant horizon, and even objects that are far, far away...and yes, even in another galaxy. Even beyond that galaxy to the most distant point in the visible universe.

That superpower is sight.

Because humans developed this ability, the universe has been opened up to us. Decades or centuries before any spacecraft or probe of our design will reach a distant star or dark corner of the universe, we will most likely have already seen it and studied it through our telescopes or large arrays, and we'll know many things about it--its nature, environment, atmosphere and composition.

Because we can see.

But let's go back in time. What, exactly, is sight? And how did we come by it?

The first fossilized evidence of complex eyes dates back about 540 million years to the Cambrian Explosion, the evolutionary blast of new flora and fauna species. Though eyes may have evolved even earlier, no evidence has survived to support that. Scientists have determined that eyes evolved in a time span of a mere 364,000 years from a small patch of photoreceptors to the complex organ referred to as the "camera eye."

Eyesight evolved because species that could better see their environment and more accurately interpret what was around them--and what was coming toward them--had a better chance of surviving to pass down that DNA to the next generation.

Surprisingly, the evolution of the eye doesn't have a single origin. Eye sight evolved independently some 50-100 times during the course of evolution. For instance, Octopi eyes evolved independently from vertebrates, with a slightly different structure in the nerves and retina. Yet the basic composition and how they function is very similar.

This suggests the development of a sight organ in an alien species is highly possible. Which means that there may be aliens out there at this moment, peering at the heavens with the same fascination as we Earthlings, bent on discovering what makes the universe tick.

Since modern man first appeared roughly about 200,000 years ago, our eyes have helped us to learn and survive in a hostile world through observation and understanding. Now they do the same thing to help us better understand the cosmos as a whole.

We view Martian landscapes from the current Curiosity rover, study close-up images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and their satellites sent from past Voyager and the later Jupiter Galileo spacecraft, applaud the recent arrival of the Juno Jovian probe, and have poured over surprising images of Pluto and her five mysterious moons, some 4.67 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers) distant, from the New Horizons mission last year.

By looking at the images, we can determine things about the environments, make-up, geology and dynamics of these worlds as if we were already there.

Our space telescopes have helped us detect the existence of other planets and solar systems orbiting distant stars by studying the light fluctuations of those suns. Via their light spectrums, our scientists can even determine if the planets might be Earth-like and a candidate for potential colony sites in the future.

To be sure, it will be a very distant future, but meanwhile our sight exceeds our grasp. Our eyes can boldly go to those distant places where our bodies can't yet travel.

Although we continue to work toward someday exploring other planets, systems, and even galaxies, the reality is we're going there right now. The greatest space exploration vessels we will ever have is our eyes.

Have a great week.

Laurie

2 comments:

  1. Did you ever see that fascinating TV show where scientists used development of an eye to show evolution could come up with the design? They used a simple algorithm to make tiny changes to a basic design, then chose the one that gave the best results (can't recall the criteria)and applied changes again. It was absolutely fascinating. I'm sure there are beasties out there that can see their world - and maybe ours, too.

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  2. No, I didn't see that but it sounds fascinating. The fact that eyes have evolved independently on Earth 50 to 100 different times suggests that they're pretty essential for survival. Thanks, Greta!

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