Seeing

My vision can’t be corrected to twenty/twenty.

It’s my left eye’s fault. I sit in the optometrist’s chair, looking out at that bright patch on the wall where there are supposed to be letters but I don’t see anything yet. Just a fuzzy pane of light. He makes some adjustments, clicks in a few lenses, his head near mine, like we’re conferring about something.

“Alright. What’s the farthest line down you can read?”

I scan the chart and can make out something halfway down, in the middle of a line. An E, I think? Or is it a B? I blink, and with an effort of great concentration, stare those letters down. Try to pin them to the wall. “C…U…I think that’s an E…” I hesitate.

“Good,” he prompts.

“Could be a T…” I’m losing conviction as the ink swims in the light. “W. 5.”

“Good. That’s a four,” he informs me. Nicely. Trying to help.

I lean back from the apparatus I’ve had my face pressed against. Rub my eyes. He writes something down. Then we get going again.

“Ok—one, or two?” He flips lenses back and forth. “One, or two?” I keep staring out, fixing on that E in the middle like it’s the North Star or something. Knowing this will go on for a while. “Two,” I say. Knowing that eventually, he’ll be asking, “Seven? Or eight?”

When we’re finally finished (what a relief when we get to my right eye, with which I do much better), I feel like I’ve taken a really hard test. Thank god for the science of optics, I think, climbing out of the chair.

It’s not often that I am so starkly confronted with how much effort it can take, to see.

***

Saturn’s rings are made of snowballs. Some of them are as big as houses, or small mountains. The Voyager spacecraft saw them—flew right over them, taking pictures. I remember sitting in a dark classroom at college, looking at those silent films (black and white, or for some reason, I think black and slightly golden?) of Saturn and its rings, coming up on the projector screen. There was something so profound and so transporting about it—the images, and the silence. I felt for a moment as if I were in space.

Galileo was the first person to see Saturn’s rings, in 1610. He needed a telescope to do it. (Optics!) Even then, he thought he was seeing a planet with a moon sticking out on either side. It wasn’t until fifty years later when a guy named Huygens with a better telescope could make out that Saturn actually had rings.

People kept looking, telescopes got even better—and bigger. But nothing we could see from Earth came even close to what the Voyager spacecraft saw. With Voyager, we threw an eye out into the solar system, and saw what was there. Voyager brought us close.

And paradoxically, took us far away.

I watched a documentary recently, about the Voyager mission. Near the end it was explained that as Voyager 1 passed Neptune, the outermost planet in our system, people on the project thought the spacecraft should take pictures, looking back. Voyager 1 had to be turned to do it, and there was no scientific reason to do the work required—so at first, they couldn’t get permission. Then Carl Sagan talked to some people (up the ladder, apparently) and got the ok.

The spacecraft was reoriented, the images captured. Beamed back to JPL (the Jet Propulsion Lab), a series of photos showed bands of red, orange and green, the sun’s light scattered in the camera, way out in the cold blackness where Neptune orbits. In the middle of one of those streaks is a tiny speck of light. You have to enlarge the photo, a lot, even to be sure it’s there:

Earth.

The scientists interviewed in the documentary said there was no real scientific reason, to get that photo. And yet…

I begin to think the most important thing space exploration will ever do for us is to give us sight.

In all that darkness, which it took a spacecraft even traveling at 35,000 mph decades to traverse, the only planet situated at just the right distance from the sun, the only place where there is light and warmth and air and water in the right form and proportion to sustain life as we know it, is that tiny, shining mote.

Human beings—it is our lot, to be nearsighted.

But when we’re handed the lens, when the picture is put in front of us…

What excuse do we have, not to see?

Nancy Squires, December 2017

 

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