Bow Tie in the Sky

Posted on 2011 October 30


It’s fuzzy, but there’s a yellow bow tie in there

Did you know that some bugs can migrate just by noticing the angle of light from the sky? Me neither. But a recent news article reported that light pollution from cities is scrambling the migratory process by obscuring the signal to bugs and other flying critters. Not that we’d care. Except we lost a lot of bees a few years back and our food costs went up, and now we’re losing a lot of bats, which might increase disease risk and, once again, threaten our food supply. So it’s worthwhile to pay attention to such issues.

Anyway, these animals can actually see the polarization of light. Polarization basically is the angle of the light’s electric field. (Whatever that is.) We can witness its side effects when we’re outside on a bright day and sunlight bounces off a lake or a windshield or snow and creates glare. Polarized sunglasses are good at filtering out all that lined-up light so we don’t get overwhelmed.

But what would it look like to see this polarization? I tried to imagine a bee gazing up at the night sky — the full moon’s brilliance bouncing across the heavens to stream into the zillions of cells of the bee’s compound eyes — and the bee thinks, “Aha! I can tell, by the angle of the light, that north is in that direction, so now I know which way to travel.” Or something. (It’s a very smart and verbal bee.)

I looked up polarization online and learned that many humans can see it directly! It works like this: on a bright, clear day, you face the sun, then turn right or left and look up at the sky. If you’re lucky, you just might make out what appears to be a fuzzy yellow bow tie about as wide as a dime held at arm’s length. (Whether this helps you to migrate is up to you.)

But then I learned that many people can see the same yellow bow tie when they’re looking at a computer screen. Apparently the liquid crystals in most people’s screens polarize light before beaming it out.

Cool. I tried it, opening a blank document page and stretching the doc until it filled the screen. Then I made sure my computer’s brightness control was set to high. And I stared at the screen.

Mostly I saw floaters and little wiggly things — old cellular junk floating in the middle of my eyes, plus some random noise — and then I noticed a patch of yellow. Whoa! The patch clearly had a shape, like an out-of-focus bow tie or a filled-in number 8, except it was tilted at an angle. Double whoa. This was fun. So I went back to the online article and learned that sometimes ” . . . it is often diagonal.” That wouldn’t have occurred to me to make up. It really was at an angle. I really did see it!

It’s called “Haidinger’s Brush” because a guy named Haidinger discovered it and thought it looked fuzzy like a brush. It’s shaped like a dumbbell. But I say it’s a bow tie.

I took all this amusement and described it in an email to some friends, hoping they’d experiment and maybe see the yellow bow tie on their screens. But then I got a reply back: “Could I use a white piece of paper?” It turns out the sender was too easily overwhelmed by computers and was hoping not to have to deal with them. (White paper just doesn’t get it, by the way. It’s gotta be an LCD screen. Or a bright sky.)

This got me onto an entirely different line of thought: how come we members of the Pepsi Generation are falling into the same ruts as our parents? You know, where they simply refused to deal with all the changes being hurled at them from our culture? This flood of novelty has only gotten worse over the years, and now the Baby Boomers are beginning to resist it like their folks did, only more so. “An e-reader? Nah. I just like the look and feel of a paper book in my hands!” … “I don’t need one of these complicated smart phones to get around in life!” … “Facebook, Schmacebook! If I want to contact someone, I can email them!”

(Which shows you how old email has gotten.)

Now, I hardly know a thing about computer programming (well, beyond a couple weeks’ practice with the Basic language decades ago), and I wouldn’t know which end of a video chip is up. But I’m comfy with computers, and I’ve published books online — doing the writing, editing, art production, formatting, etc. — simply by figuring it out as I went along. In fact, recently I took a quiz about the youth culture at the Pew Research Center, and the test results put me in my early twenties! Believe me, I’m not in my early twenties. (I think it was my Facebook page that de-aged me.)

The point is, if little ol’ me can get along in this brave new world, how come some of my smartest acquaintances hold it at arm’s length? I suspect it has something to do with our DNA.

There are two main things in our genetic makeup that, in modern times, seem to get in our way: (1) tribalism, and (2) resistance to change. I’ve written about tribalism elsewhere, but there’s also the adaptation problem.

We’re born with very good default settings in our nervous systems, and on top of that we’ve got oversized frontal lobes for adapting to the occasional big surprise that comes along. But modern urban life, with its rapid turnover in technology and social norms, is morphing into all surprises, all the time. It seems to have pinned the needle on our adaptation meter. Older people, more set in their ways, get pinned harder.

The challenge is clear: they must learn to up the tempo of their adaptation dance. They must learn the new steps quickly. They must not quit and sit in a corner of the dance hall, arms folded, having no fun.

(I’ll stop now with the mixed metaphors.)

“But how can we adapt? It all seems like too much change to deal with.” Okay, here’s an example:

Remember those adventure games that came with your computers in the 1980s? (Remember the 1980s?) They had no images, just words describing the current game situation: “The princess has been kidnapped! You’re standing in her castle suite. On the dresser is a magic ring and a piece of paper.” You’d take the items; on the page is written, “There is a secret passage to the dungeon.” You’d wonder if the princess might be trapped there, and, after some poking around, you’d find the passageway entrance behind a bookcase. “There is a sword in a scabbard leaning against the stone wall beneath a blazing torch.” Well, dang, you’re sure gonna take the sword! And so on.

My idea is that social and technological changes can be treated the same way. Each new electronic device — or cultural trend, or shift in the political landscape — can be treated as an interesting puzzle or challenge to be solved. Once we’ve gotten curious — once we’re intrigued — the entire process turns into a game where you win if you make good use of the new situation.

Here’s another example: this essay began with a note about insect migration, moved to a discussion on polarized light, morphed into a presentation of amusing optical effects, veered off toward a critique on aging and change, and ended with a discussion on how better to respond to the challenges of modern life. This proves two things: (1) we can adjust easily to a rapidly changing set of events, and (2) I have a serious case of attention-deficit disorder.

Be that as it may, we don’t have to be techno-mavens to adapt technologies quickly to our use. For one thing, they’re fairly intuitive to use; otherwise no sensible person would have bought one in the first place. So it’s not that hard to make them work for us. Let’s take advantage of them! The devices don’t own us; we own the devices. Let’s be in charge of them! (And, while we’re at it, we really should clean out that dungeon.)

Besides, if we can conquer the challenges of the new technologies, we just might get the reward of seeing … a yellow bow tie.

* * * *

UPDATE: Fruit Flies Watch the Sky to Stay On Course