Saturday, 23 October 2010


Go hunting for crocodiles, and you will find mirrors in their eyes. Take a flash light in the dead of night, a fair am amount of your own good eye sight, and a great deal of courage, and as you track them down in the Amazon basin, you will discover a 100 glowing lamps in the water and gliding on the river banks. These are the mirrors at the back of the retina of the Amazonian crocodile – a peculiar evolution for these slip-slide navigators of the dark – which scoop up the luminosity of your flash light and reflect it back to you: the hunter turned prey. Inverted sight.

Such is the beauty of talking to a particle physicist, that narratives unfold before you in the course of what may appear to be a simple conversation. It’s like always being in Alice in Wonderland. There is one door open, but suddenly you find yourself falling through one in the floor. Or shooting up to a skylight as if propelled by wings. This narrative had started, like they all do, with what seemed like a simple question. Why is Alan working with neurobiologists investigating colour ? The story would take us to crocodiles, via Pablo and Paloma Picasso, the Salke Institute, Woody Allen, CERN, Louis Khan, Brooklyn and back again – and all the time at the centre of the narrative was the wonder of the human eye. How it receives images about the world and helps us navigate the world replete with matter.

Alan is baffled. For most of his career he worked in physics, constructing the silicon detectors which can see the invisible - detect and track particles which make up the universe. He was bemused when he discovered by looking at biology, that in fact all he was doing was constructing what already existed in nature. It's what drives him continuously to make the link between physics and neurobiology - against the grain of funding and silo-orientated science.

'Look at the detectors, and they are nothing but giant eyes,' he says. It reminds me of my first blog entry when I said just that. But it is more than that. Unwittingly, when building the great hexagons, physicists and engineers were mimicing the shape of the rods in our eyes which let light in - and out - and enable us to see. They are hexagonal too, in order to make sure they let in the most amount of light possible.
The unwitting symmetry between man and Nature is startling. And Alain is now on the quest of understanding Nature so as to improve science and technology.

'Do you know that when we see something, we actually see it in our eyes as 22 different images? But then our brain reorientates these images and collates them, giving us just one.' I didnt. And as ever, I feel inspired to think about how the arts can engage with this observation, as well as wonder what happens when the brain just cant manage this consilience and if there are people who see more than one image when they look at the world. Or whether that is what artists really are - because somewhere their brain is resounding with the memory of the discarded other ways of looking. Perhaps imagination is the ghost of the eye.

'Did you know that Woody Allen always tells physics jokes?' Another thing I didnt know. How we got to this seemingly random conversation is through discovering that Alan, like my father, is a Brooklyn boy, and Woody Allen is too, of course. All 3 are contemporaries - good jewish boys - and Alan turns out to have tried to gatecrash a Woody Allen concert in Geneva by telling a Woody Allen joke to a film crew. It won him the right to free entry. So I look up some of these jokes which have worked such magic:

Saying you know how to get around the universe is like going around China Town without a map

Well, the universe is everything, and if it's expanding, someday it will break apart

Interestingly, according to modern astronomers, space is finite. This is a very comforting thought - particularly for people who cannot remember where they left things. 

"She caught his eye, became his mistress, but was also the only woman ever to leave him' Alan again, now telling the story of Francoise Gilot, who was the mistress of Picasso when only 21, but left him, then later fell in love with the vaccine pioneer Jonas Salke, who founded the famous science institution in america, the Salke Institute, built by the extraordinary Louis Khan, who in turn inspired by father. It turns out Francoise's daughter by Picasso, Paloma, is now the fundraiser for the institute...

And so the connections continue and spin into the swirl of afternoon coffee at CERN. Picasso by way of Allen by way of Brooklyn and amazonian crocodiles - a cartography of a random conversation which revolves around the beauty of the eye.

For a detailed article about Alan Litke's pioneering work, see

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