Friday, December 12, 2008

What if... #12

What if we could see light over as large a frequency range as we can hear sound?

This post is part of the 2008 advent series "What if..."


  1. In my estimation if it began at radio frequency that would take you all the way to gamma so;

    -you could watch the radio broadcast while listening and choose the stations by assigning colors to the stations

    - T.V. broadcasts of course would also have colours assigned

    -you could view your x-rays in real time (not to sure how safe that be depends on visual sensitivity to strength of source)With this beauty would be more then skin deep

    -you could see your cell phone conversations as well as hear them

    - there would be no such thing as darkness (infrared would be seen) and your eyelids would be useless so there would have to be some nerve disconnect instead.

    - as far as that goes we wouldn’t require artificial light to see and electrical consumption would drop

    - there is lots more of course


  2. Sorry, one I forgot to add:

    'Since short wave reflects off the ionosphere there would be no such term as to be able to see beyond ones horizons :-)

  3. Probably our eyes and brains would have to be even larger to be able to process all that extra sensory input, or maybe we could have extra or compound eyes or antennae like bugs. Butterflies can see ultraviolet light which helps them detect when flower nectars are most "ripe" and so on. And maybe our own skin would be much different. I've always thought it would be cool to be able to change colors like an octopus. ;-)

  4. Robert Heinlein asked this question. I think it was in Time Enough for Love. He noted that the interval from red (the lowest frequency of visible light) to violet (the highest) is just slightly less than an octave. If we could see ultraviolet, then the interval from red to ultraviolet would be an octave. Just as notes that are one octave apart sound similar in some way, perhaps ultraviolet would be similar to red.

  5. Wow - that is a good what if. I like it.

  6. Without selectivity data does not become information.

    All glass would be colored. Nearly everybody would be colorblind to some degree and thus deserving of VICTIMS! rights. Chromatic aberration would be a bitch, ditto focus.

  7. I wonder what kinds of organic chemicals would be up to the task. I mean, given that range, a good portion of what we could see would have to be powerfully-ionizing radiation. With our present capabilities, such photons are undetectable because, I presume, if an opsin does somehow absorb such a particle, rather than changing its conformation and activating a G protein, it simply gets destroyed.

    Maybe we'd need semiconductors or metals in our eyes first, before we tackle the psychological implications of new and unimagined colors.

  8. Hello Low Math, Meekly Interacting,
    semiconductors and so on would be not
    prohibiting, I suppose.
    Think of the iron particles dicussed as magnetic field sensors
    in doves and bacteria.
    Why "life" does not make use of silicon, aluminium, germanium or arsenic or tellurium or.. or...
    in cells, is a riddle still.
    Hardcore of "Life" is more inorganic, not
    organic. Organic molecules are more the
    "skeleton", durable due to their (meta-)
    stability, whereas the iron, zinc, copper, cobalt or selenium plays the role of
    catalyst core groups, where the "action" is.
    For such reasons I would believe very much
    in "lifes" ability to make up semiconducting
    devices, if "needed".
    Isn't something like that working in enzymes
    where electron transfers are made as in e.g. chlorophyll?
    I am a little bit astonished about the ideas of
    ionizing radiation in this thread,
    because we hear sound from 16 Hz up to
    18000 Hz, this ratio is rather close to
    1000 or 1024 for easy calculation.
    If I apply this ratio from 400 nm (blue) downwards, I obtain 400 µm =.4 mm as
    the low frequency end.
    If I start from 1 MHz (Broadcast) upward,
    the upper end were 1000 MHz, somewhere
    around cell phone frequencies afaik.
    Do I apply the "bürgerlichen Dreisatz"
    The core of this thread is another example of
    this world beiing the best of all.
    Vision is adapted to earths atmospheres
    tranmission bands, and enough distance to
    thermal noise (in detectors),
    this leads to the low end.
    Any radiation shorter than blue destroys
    any chemical compound which is not
    thermodynamically stable. This defines the
    upper end.
    Best Regards

  9. Hi Georg,

    “If I start from 1 MHz (Broadcast) upward,the upper end were 1000 MHz, somewhere, around cell phone frequencies afaik.”

    This is true and I stand corrected as to what I said. I just have to get that new calculator:-)

    I would also note how we make the comparison as to scale plays a role. There is of course wave length and frequency yet also for EM we have the black body temperature of the source from which it was emitted. If we look to this it would increase the spread even further. Here the microwave background would be extremely hot compared to radio waves. That has me wonder if they are looking for black holes in this band width for with the temperature they (the large ones) would have (as to emit) would be in the very low radio band. Perhaps SETI for years has been gathering data inadvertently about black holes all along.



  10. Life makes use of myriad elements that can assume a metallic state, from sodium on, but they're all soluble cations when found in significant quantities in living things. When serving some catalytic or transport function while complexed with a protein, you typically find things like iron or magnesium bound to certain amino acids in a "pocket" all alone, a single ion sequestered in a polymeric organic macromolecule weighing tens or hundreds of thousands of daltons. If such an ion absorbs an x-ray photon, for instance, where can it shed that energy non-destructively? I honestly don't know.

    Anyway, when I think of a "metal" or a "semiconductor", I believe what we're talking about technically is either some pure or alloyed collection of atoms from the requisite chemical groups, where the overall charge is neutral, or very close to that on average, and the valence electrons are either free or semi-free to move around as something like a gas. I'm not sure how big a chunk of metal or semiconductor would have to be to make a high-energy photon detector that wasn't destroyed by said photons, or a secondary source of chemically-active toxins like reactive oxygen species. I think, however, it might have to be quite a bit bigger than a lonely Fe2+ nestled in heme.

  11. Actually, now that I think of it, we'd need something pretty substantial and dense to capture high energy photons with any efficiency in the first place, right? Most X- and gamma rays we encounter fly right through us without even being deflected, isn't that correct?

  12. Hello "low math...."
    right, "shield" of X-Rays and shorter
    is proportional to electron density.
    That is why lead is used when You look for
    a optimum of price / at low thickness or
    concrete if there is room enough.
    Photograpic films for X-Ray are doped
    with tungsten (oxide?).
    Concerning metal ions in enzymes and so on,
    You are quite right, but there are exemptions.
    Fe4S4 cubes are one example, the other
    is the iron particles I mentioned for
    sensing of magnetic fields.
    That particles are really "big", some
    hundred atoms at least and - it is iron,
    not ferric or ferrous ions!.
    Such iron particles are found in doves and
    in hay bacteria, they are responsible for
    the autoignition of hay stacks.
    In general, semiconductors (devices)
    can be and are are made from organic dyestuff and polymers, such organic semiconducting
    devices are discussed in rhodopsin receptors and in chloroplasts.

  13. Hi Peter,

    thanks for the pointer to "Time Enough for Love", I didn't know this novel. Here it goes: "Lazerus", Minerva added, "it may be that I can see a rainbow better then a flesh-and-blood can. My visual range is three octave, fifteen hundred to twelve thousand angstrom."

    Hi Georg, Low Math,

    thanks for the interesting comments! I didn't think about the material realizations of the "detectors" in the first place. It may indeed be hard to find suitable materials.

    And it seems I wasn't fully aware of the enormous range of the electromagnetic spectrum from gamma rays to radio - there are indeed a few factors of 1000 (width of the spectrum of audible sound, as Georg has pointed out) fitting in.

    Another aspect I had thought about - it probably wouldn't be possible to have spatial images of what we "see" on something as a retina for such a wide range of frequencies/ wavelengths, as optics do not work over such wide ranges in a uniform way. So, we probably would be more sensitive to momentum space/frequency information, but could not see spatially resolved real space images? I guess in hearing it is very similar, spatial resolution can only be "heard" because of the timing differences between both ears.

    Cheers, Stefan

  14. Hi Georg,

    concerning the iron particles I mentioned for sensing of magnetic fields, that's a fascinating topic in my opininon, indeed. There was a feature article on "Magnetoreception in animals" in the March 2008 issue of Physics Today, free to read for all. The article also discusses these nano-scale crystallites of ferrimagnetic iron oxides magnetite and maghemite found in the beaks of pigeons.

    Such iron particles [...] are responsible for the autoignition of hay stacks.

    Huh - what's the mechanism there? This sounds really bizarre!

    Cheers, Stefan

  15. What would the qualia be? Why can't I imagine them?

  16. Hello Stefan,
    >Such iron particles [...] are responsible for the autoignition of hay stacks.<
    This is a common feature of substancees
    which are oxidizable.
    Iron in general is thermodynamically instable in precence of oxygen,
    but normally it does not burn, the
    reaction is much too slow for bulk iron
    at ambient temperatures.
    If You have fine particles or the crystals
    contain enough defects, the iron is
    E. G. if You reduce precipitated and dried iron hydroxide at 300°C with
    hydrogen, the resulting iron powder/sponge
    is highly pyrophoric.
    In humid hay stacks fermentation process
    by hay bakteria leads to hot and dry
    parts, where the fine iron particles
    start to react with oxygen.
    Because heat loss out of such a hay
    pile is very slow, temperature can
    reach ignition temperatures.
    Physically You need oygen diffusion inward
    to be faster than heat transfer outward.
    The autoignition of hay is a fact well known since
    long times, but knowledge of the "why"
    is rather new. I read about this in connection with iron particles as magnetic detectors in animals.
    New question: do hay bakteria sense the earths magnetic field? If yes, to what

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  18. Clifford writes:

    This is simply fascinating. I heard about it on NPR. While it is well known that birds are sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field, and use it to navigate, apparently it’s only been recently shown that this sensitivity is connected directly to the visual system (at least in some birds). The idea seems to be that the bird has evolved a mechanism for essentially seeing the magnetic field, presumably in the sense that magnetic information is encoded in the visual field and mapped to the brain along with the usual visual data See: Magnetic Vision

    Your getting on shaky ground there Stefan:) Rupert Sheldrake would be happy with your interest considering Morphic Resonance:)

    The Tscan was developed to help us see the sun in gamma? Nice to be able to see these Cerenkov rings.



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