Throughout history humans have tried to understand how the world around us works. It’s what humans are good at. We really only have two semi-unique attributes that have helped make us as successful as we are: a brain to examine the world and opposable thumbs to manipulate it to our advantage.
We study phenomena closely, and devise better ways of observing them, so we can recognize patterns and use new information to our advantage. The simplest and perhaps most profound example of this in human history is the development and advancement of agriculture. Starting from literally nothing, as agriculture is a decidedly foreign concept to mammals, over many generations and thousands of years, humans pieced together the information necessary to create an abundance of food, capable of sustaining billions of people. What environment do certain crops grow best in, how to till the land, when to plant, when to harvest, how to store and cure. As soon as these questions had adequate answers we thrived as a species, spreading out from our native Africa to literally ever corner of the globe.
An amazing new tool has been discovered to help further our knowledge of the world: Femto-photography. It’s an imaging system that takes a trillion frames per second. Because of it, we can now visually observe light. Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor at MIT, demonstrates the remarkable abilities of this new technology in this Ted Talk.
In Raskar’s demonstration, he discusses ways of utilizing this new observational tool. On the more mundane side, femto-photography can be used to determine the ripeness of fruit based on the way light scatters through it. He also mentions a more practical (and military grant enticing) use: the ability to see around corners. But to me, the raw discovery is what fascinates me, rather than the current or future ways to productively utilize such technology.
Humans began to understand the world in concentric circles. First we understood our immediate environment. Then we spread our knowledge to the unseen. The Greek mathematician Eratosthenes is said to have determined the circumference of the Earth with remarkable accuracy in the 3rd century BCE. Galileo and Copernicus helped us understand the Solar System. Einstein created the Theory of Relativity and described space-time. Innumerate others helped explain sub-atomic particles and quantum physics.
Now we have a way of looking at light itself.
I am thrilled for the future applications of this knowledge. I really am. But for right now, I think it’s important to simply sit back in our arm-chairs, let out a contented sigh, and take comfort in the ingenuity of humans. It’s inspiring and assuring to realize that the species can indeed, given time, accomplish anything if it puts its mind to it (to paraphrase Doc Brown).