beautiful piece of science writing

I am so glad I followed my inclination to read Carl Zimmer’s column in Discover Magazine entitled “‘I See,’ Said the Blind Man With an Artificial Retina.” I’m following Zimmer’s blog, The Loom, and Zimmer mentioned the column. It’s a brilliant piece of science writing, as well as prime example of comparing and contrasting — in this case, the camera and the eye. Zimmer calls the camera “boringly euclidean” because the photodiodes are placed in a grid, but the retina has a “network of neurons” that “looks less like a grid than a set of psychedelic snowflakes.” Sweet. I like that the article begins with the urgencies for folks who are going blind or are blind — Zimmer starts with why the science is important. And the description at the start of the technology is clear as a well-polished lens:

Scientists have been trying to build visual prostheses since the 1970s. This past spring the effort reached a crucial milestone, when European regulators approved the first commercially available bionic eye. The Argus II, a device made by Second Sight, a company in California, includes a video camera housed in a special pair of glasses. It wirelessly transmits signals from the camera to a 6 pixel by 10 pixel grid of electrodes attached to the back of a subject’s eye. The electrodes stimulate the neurons in the retina, which send secondary signals down the optic nerve to the brain.

I also admire the effortless (seemingly — I know how difficult it is to get writing that clear) clarity at the very start. Look at how Zimmer dissects how vision works:

For 100 million people around the globe who suffer from macular degeneration and other diseases of the retina, life is a steady march from light into darkness. The intricate layers of neurons at the backs of their eyes gradually degrade and lose the ability to snatch photons and translate them into electric signals that are sent to the brain. Vision steadily blurs or narrows, and for some, the world fades to black.

Treat yourself. Go read the article.

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One response to “beautiful piece of science writing

  1. I find this incredibly interesting. What’s particularly interesting to me, but not really covered in the article is what will happen when bionic eyes (or other bionic body parts) become superior to those naturally possessed by the average human. Would these bionic eyes/other parts become available to anyone who wished to improve their already well functioning bodies? The implications of a functioning bionic eye are astounding and there’s so much we can do once we get to the level of producing bionic eyes on par with natural ones.

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