Friday, May 31, 2024

How much reality do we perceive

Northern Lights Over Washington state - May 10, 2024

Much of the world was treated recently to a once-in-a-generation solar storm that pushed the northern lights closer to the equator than any time in the past 21 years. It wasn’t the strongest storm ever, but it may have been one of the most observed.

News sites promoted a potentially spectacular display two days before it appeared. The aurora borealis was even better than forecast. Near Seattle, it stretched all the way across the sky – something that you don’t usually see unless you’re much closer to the Arctic Circle.

If you didn’t happen to see the aurora for yourself that night, you’ve almost certainly seen pictures of it on the news or social media. And many of the posts are followed by arguments over whether the image shared accurately depicts the northern lights that night.

It can be tough to get beyond the bickering, but I think the root of that question – is the image real – has a fascinating philosophical component in this case that I’d like to explore here.

Much of the squabbling relates to the colors. The pictures you’ve seen – mine included – are strikingly colorful, often with red and violet streaks among the green and yellow. In person, the display appears much more muted. Many people perceive the aurora as gray.

While people argue about how much Photoshop enhancement is behind the pictures, it’s important to understand that our eyes work in a completely different way from camera sensors. A camera sensor always records color, whereas the sensors in our eyes that are responsible for color – the cones – generally don’t work well at night.

Northern Lights Over Washington state - May 10, 2024

As I’m standing on a remote beach gazing at the aurora overhead, I’m mainly noticing the striking shapes and patterns. My camera is recording those along with the spectacular colors. So, which is correct?

It’s natural to focus on our experience, but the red streaks, caused by charged solar particles striking oxygen atoms 200 miles overhead, are also very much natural. I realize my perception is very limited. Just because I can’t fully see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

My best pictures are the result of having deeper experiences in nature. If I limit my experience to what I immediately perceive, I end up with a very shallow encounter. But if I take the time to concentrate – to see, hear, and smell things that I didn’t notice at first – I end up with a rich experience that leaves a lasting impression.

The recent aurora display was so strong that I did eventually see some of the colors. At its peak – and after my eyes fully adjusted to the darkness – I did perceive some bands of pink, dark blue, and green. I might not have had I not invested the effort to try.

Broadening our perception a common theme in my Five Minutes in Nature project, which is the subject of a new book and an exhibit at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York. You can learn more about it here.

(Prints of Kevin Ebi's images are available through Learn about new work by joining his mailing list.)

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