Boris Mann

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Reading update

  • Created: March 07, 2004
  • Review

I’m working my way through two Oliver Sacks books rights now. Seems I’ve been on a science reading kick lately (or “science history”, as Trevor calls it).

I actually started with An Anthropologist on Mars. Some of the writing and concepts are very domain-specific, which can make it hard to get through. The concepts about how we “see” colour blew my mind.

(Note: I’m sure I’m going to screw up this explanation. I’m trying to distill it down from Sacks’ complicated description that still makes my brain hurt.)

Basically, the whole concept of colour is a completely different part of the brain from actually seeing. Yes, we have sensors in our eyes that respond to different frequencies of light. But the thing is, with differing light levels, we still see the same colours. So, an apple in full sunlight is seen by us as red, just as an apple in the shade is also red. Even though the frequencies of light bouncing off the apple are different.

It is our “colour sense” that paints the apple red. Our “knowing” that the apple is red is completely separate from the light reflecting from it. There are some experiments that prove this, as well as medical cases where people lose this “colour sense” through brain injuries (which is how this comes up in the book).

The book that I am actively reading is Uncle Tungsten, which is Oliver Sacks’ auto-biography, subtitled “Memories of a Chemical Boyhood”. Some of the very detailed histories of scientists reminds me of Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”. But Sacks goes into a lot more detail about chemistry. I’m doubtful that someone without a background in science will find it as interesting.