The Braille Monitor                                                                                January/February 2002

(back) (next) (contents)

Beyond Our Senses

Chris Kuell
Chris Kuell

by Chris Kuell

From the Editor: Chris Kuell is a blind freelance writer from Danbury, Connecticut; First Vice President of the NFB of Connecticut; and Director of Legislative Affairs for the affiliate. Although he has a Ph.D. in Chemistry, he now writes articles dealing with blindness--accessibility issues, Braille literacy, and positive attitudes--as well as other nonfiction articles and short stories. He is married; has two children; and enjoys spending time gardening, working on the house, playing with his kids, and experiencing the great outdoors.

"We do not understand what this means--to `see.'"

"Well, it's what, what things look like," Meg said helplessly.

"We do not know what things look like, as you say," the beast said. "We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing."

"Oh no," Meg cried. "It's the most wonderful thing in the world."

"What a very strange place your world must be," the beast said. "That such a peculiar-seeming thing should be of such importance."

From A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

As we closed one millennium and opened the next, the media reminded us exhaustively of the many medical and technological advances made by humankind in the last one hundred years. This progressive wave of knowledge and achievement is so impressive that we could spend the next hundred years debating which inventions were the most important. But what really fascinates me is the manner in which knowledge is expanded, being built up from a foundation of basic understanding, one brick at a time, individual advancements contributing mortar and stone to discoveries that alter the structure of our lives.

Prior to the last 150 years or so, human beings relied on our senses to examine, investigate, study, analyze, and understand the world around us. By using sight, sound, taste, smell, feel, and movement, people developed a crude picture of the inner mechanisms that govern life processes. When certain phenomena could not be explained by the science of the times, they would be understood through witchcraft, superstition, and hauntings from the spirit world. Our former need to turn to the supernatural to explain basic natural phenomena illustrates the limitations of our biological detectors.

In order to draw a better picture of nature, we have had to move beyond the power of the senses to acquire knowledge about the physics, chemistry, and biology that make our world work as it does. Thus scientists have spent the last century developing highly refined instruments so that we might better scrutinize our cosmos. The progressive wave of the twentieth century swept in antibiotics and antiviral agents, revolutionary transportation, satellites, computers, the Internet, microwave ovens, and digital technology. Each and every milestone in discovery and technology was presaged by incremental scientific advancements. The invention of better, more precise instruments allowed us to develop new theories about our Earth and its inhabitants. Gaining new knowledge and theories made humankind yearn for even deeper understanding, and we built still better and more sophisticated devices. Technologies such as the electron microscope, the mass spectrometer, the gas chromatograph, the nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, and computerized telescopes have allowed us to see things from the sub-units of our universe to objects far beyond our galaxy. Modern instrumentation allows human beings to transcend our senses, transforming data into information that can be used by our minds first and our senses later.

For example, mathematicians have developed an equation that describes the sound of rain as it falls on the ocean's surface. Using sophisticated microphones sixty feet underwater, Dr. Jeffrey Nystuen, a University of Washington oceanographer and research team member for NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, collects acoustical data resulting from the sound of the drops hitting the surface and the bubbles being formed underneath. With these data he can deduce the size of the raindrops, the amount of rainfall, and ultimately the progress of climate change.

Cancer research and treatment have been forever altered by the use of magnetic resonance imaging technology (MRI). An MRI machine uses a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer to produce electronic images of specific atoms and molecular structures in solids, especially human cells, tissues, and organs. MRIs are so precise that they can be used to find the tiniest of clusters of cancer cells deep inside a patient's brain. However, it should be noted that the doctor does not see the cancer. Rather the doctor interprets a three-dimensional graphical representation of what the human eye could never see in a live patient.

Is anyone in the modern era unfamiliar with Doppler radar? Every local weather station uses this powerful tool to see the weather patterns. How many homes now boast a carbon monoxide detector? Our senses prevent us from detecting this silent, deadly gas, but our technology frees us to learn of its presence.

We live in an era in which our understanding of the world is not limited to our biological connections to that world. Instrumentation and technology that greatly surpass our human senses are commonplace today. Yet the most specialized instrument and the data it records are rendered meaningless in the absence of the most important sense of all--common sense. Our brains and our ability to think logically are the only mandatory link to all the progress humankind has made in the past hundred years. Anyone can see more deeply into the nature of life by putting his or her brain to work; eyesight is not necessary.


Like the beast in L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, I too wonder why we put such importance on sight and the other senses. After all, appearances can be very deceptive. It is far more important to understand what things are like than what things look like.


Did you know that you can make a gift to the National Federation of the Blind and save taxes three ways? Well, you can! With a gift of appreciated stocks, bonds, or mutual funds. For more information, contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, phone (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

(back) (next) (contents)