Adaptive Optics: A Tripartite Theory of Perspective

The year was 1953.

The world population hovered just under 4.5 billion; Joseph Stalin’s death captured headlines while Moscow experimented with the detonation of its first hydrogen bomb; Charlie Chaplin had been pushed out of the US for his alleged communist sentiments and the unconquerable Mount Everest had finally been conquered.

And, in the midst of a post-war boon, Pasadena, California had become a well-known science and tech hub — it is here where an astronomer by the name of Horace W. Babcock had been busy at work developing a new method of extending our vision through the dark waters of the cosmos. 

“Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” 
— Carl Sagan

Babcock had been the first to propose the innovative theory of adaptive optics, which had been so ahead of its time that it would not be adopted as a practical technique until almost half a century later. The entire purpose of this technology had been to compensate for the visual distortion caused by Earth’s atmospheric factors (such as differing temperature layers and wind speeds) when trying to observe far-away astronomical objects and anomalies. 

Once operational in the 90’s, adaptive optics functioned by way of computer-controlled, deformable mirrors — with this technology, astronomers now had a way to observe distant celestial occurrences, patterns, variances and mysteries with never-before-imagined clarity and undiluted perspective.  
A testament to the fact that perspective, believe it or not, can really mean everything.

Alan Watts has become a household name almost threatening to be worn thin, as modern philosophical meandering runs deep through saturated pools of his insights, quotes, and musings. Despite his omnipresent influence, however, we must remember that his words resonate so for a reason, as truth normally echoes on much longer than any falsehood or irrelevancy. 

It’s for this reason that the thrice-partitioned content below is useful in understanding, what I would believe to be, one of the most important and fundamental in all of Watts’ lectures. Excerpts from his oration are weaved into the parts below, meant to serve as guideposts for understanding this simple but powerful point: understanding perspective is everything and everything is, well, beyond the grasp of our understanding. But if we try to look at the whole picture —  if we just try —  then we can begin to learn a lot more about ourselves and about the world around us. 

Part I: Self-Harmony and Conflict

"You can, for example, look at a newspaper photograph under a magnifying glass and where, with the naked eye, you will see a human face, with a magnifying glass you will just see a profusion of dots rather meaninglessly scattered. 

But as you stand away from that collection of dots, which all seem to be separate and apart from each other, they suddenly arrange themselves into a pattern. And you see that these individual dots add up to some kind of sense."
— A.W.

We know very well by now that there are multiple means and lenses through which we can perceive ourselves, our trials and tribulations, our successes and our failures. Oftentimes, when we’re too zoomed-in on an issue, our view becomes distorted; likewise, if we’re too far away from a matter, we can’t make out the details. Ostensibly, this doesn’t seem like much to go on about, until we run face-first into the staggering potential that rests within larger, more existential adjustments to our perspectives — like a magic wand by which we can transmute the bad into good; the desolate into hopeful; the misfortune into fortune. 

One prime example of this, with implications that can permeate into our own mortality, is that of conflict (and, why not, self-conflict). On a scale of immediacy, conflict is to be despised; on a larger scale, however, noting the pattern and the progression, we can delineate growth or derive purpose from any such conflict. This is why it has become a 21st century truism to appreciate the struggle and embrace the challenges en route to inevitable development — we know it pays off. 

As Watts would go so far as to conclude, we could almost be sure of it:

"When we examine our bloodstreams under a microscope we see there’s one hell of a fight going on. All sorts of microorganisms are chewing each other up… 

Because the health of our organism depends on the continuance of this battle. What is, in other words, conflict at one level of magnification is harmony at a higher level."
— A.W.

Now, this isn’t just about putting good spins on bad happenstance, about seeing glasses as half full or eyeing life through rose-colored glasses. It’s about something more than that — our predisposition to recognize patterns and transcend misfortune; our ability to learn about ourselves and that around us on a much deeper level; ultimately, to think and react in a much more comprehensively-focused manner. 

To employ adaptive, not fixed, optics.

“There are no facts, only interpretations.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

We humans can sometimes seem laughably naive, in that we so easily accept our place in reality with such vehement conviction despite the fact that we can only observe a fraction of what’s really happening. It had been Immanuel Kant who had, in my opinion, best framed our limitations with his notion of transcendental idealism, arguing that we’re only able to understand that which we perceive — that our minds contextualize and limit our reality, rendering us unable to ever transcend the boundaries of our own interpretation.

And so we tend to accept, believe, and make others believe certain facts that aren’t grounded in any empirical or measurable evidence: that our lives are but a brief flash of consciousness or a steady flame of reincarnation; that we do or do not employ free will; that other dimensions certainly can or definitely don’t exist. It’s healthy and radically encouraged to speculate but, to fanaticize or develop schools of devout belief around conjecture is a curious tendency in itself.

Nevertheless, the point to be made here is that we have a tendency to get ourselves wedged into particular perceptions, whether it’s something as substantial as a life philosophy or as seemingly inconsequential as a conflict with a friend; we tend to view things not in the totality of their place in a large structure or pattern but, rather, take them for the modicum of information that they are. 
And, rightfully so, we don’t know any better because we lack the equipment to see through the jumble of light and static, faced with a blurry confluence of ingredients that serve to do nothing but muddle the water all the more. 

However, with the right knowledge, with the right bending of mirrors and adjusting of telescopic vision, we can begin to see through the clouds of distortion and begin to isolate, compartmentalize, decipher and, above all, scrutinize the entire picture into an observable world that makes more sense. 

Part II: The Spaces Between

"We tend to see the universe itself as really consisting in all the stars and galaxies. That’s what it is, that’s what we notice. But the space in which all this happens is sort of written off as something that isn’t really there."
— A.W.

Growing up, Andrea Ghez had been motivated by the moon landings to pursue a lifelong career in astronomy and astrophysics, eventually coming to master the use of high spatial resolution imaging techniques like adaptive optics, using it to study star-forming regions along with the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way. 

Today, adaptive optics allow Andrea to see up to 26,000 light-years away. Let that settle for a moment (a light year is the distance that light travels in one year). Our own sun, at a distance of 150 million kilometers, is only 0.00001581 light years away. 

Findings made by astronomers and astrophysicists like Andrea help us uncover monumental truths about how our universe is structured. By studying the orbits of stars, we can learn how black holes work; by studying the mass of celestial bodies or deciphering cosmic patterns, we can begin to shed more light on where we ourselves sit in this picture. 
In the way that the space between galactic bodies or the space between cosmic patterns allows us to decrypt more and more hidden knowledge with every discovery, it’s also the constant cipher that allows for us to learn more about ourselves and the world around us. 

We ought to account for the space between things, whether those things consist of actual physical matter or intangible events. 

"It turns out that roughly 68% of the universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%. The rest — everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter — adds up to less than 5% of the universe."

For the purposes of this essay, we can forget about the physical space and only consider the impalpable space that accompanies, say, perspective. Space, as hard as it may be to really appreciate, serves an important function — that of a continuum (more on this in part 3) which allows us to not only measure but to also shift our perspective.

For instance, we can look at the space between certain life events — in which case we can describe space as time. The more time (/space) that we add to an event, the more we can view that event from an objective perspective, or the more we can begin to decipher a pattern at play. 

Say we have a mid-life crisis — in the moment, that mid-life crisis would mean everything; ten years later, not so much. The space is what allows us the gift of variable perspective and, without it, everything would be one and the same —  so zoomed in and amalgamated together that nothing would make any sense. 

Existentially, this can be an extremely significant point. It could mean that there is much more beyond birth and death — which are but mere waves of an ocean (which can also be regarded as the space) crashing upon a seashore. Metaphysically, biologically, psychologically — it can mean wonders beyond our comprehension, allowing us a look at something real behind the veil of our self-imposed limitations. 

We can decipher our own patterns and truly appreciate our tendencies. We can read far beyond the two dimensional lines of regular happenstance and understand the why’s and how’s on a much more meaningful plane.

Ultimately, we can’t necessarily begin to view an entire picture without regarding the spaces that occupy everything between. To only consider events that are not book-ended by the influence of time or distance — this fragments our perspective. 

Part III: Continuity 

"So the moment you see that intervals — that space — is connective, you can understand at once how you are not just to be exclusively defined as a flash of consciousness that occurs between two eternal darknesses, which is the popular common-sense view which Western man has of his own life."
— A.W.

So what does this all mean in the grand scheme? Not necessarily of life, like Watts focuses on, but of our perspective towards life and our perception in general?  Realizations stemming from an adjustment of our perspective in order to accommodate the larger picture can amount to a drastic redefinition in all facets of our existence — what we think of ourselves, what we believe happens to us after we die, what we prioritize throughout life. 
And continuity is the glue that binds everything together — the effervescent oneness underlying all around us in both space and time. Whether we want to call it the Tao or some form of Karma, a mathematical formula or a collective consciousness, or some kind of deity that knows all and is all, it resonates a simple truth: there is more to everything than we realize — larger pictures that we can’t perceive but we can, at the very least, try to appreciate. 

Intelligent design — whether truly sentient or just utterly complex — is part of this bigger picture that weaves everything together. And understanding the universal presence (or quality) of continuity allows us to begin to pry our minds open just a bit more so that we can see the patterns, cycles, algorithms or formulas at play. 

We observe nature, we study the world around us but we must admit that our perceptive ability, along with our perspective is incomprehensibly limited. 

"Now, from those very tiny fast rhythms, which give us the impression of continuity, there are also — in this universe — immensely slow rhythms, and these are very difficult for us to keep track of. And they impress us and depress us as our own life and death, as our coming and going which goes for what is — to us — such a slow pace that we can’t possibly believe that it is really a rhythm."
— A.W.

To see the world around us and to absorb information in a way that isn’t just tuned into the immediacy of whatever it is we’re looking at; to not take things at face value and judge books by covers — it is to try and take everything as only part of a bigger sequence of events. 

Like with astronomical observation — we don’t accept the fact that we have a certain method by which we observe the universe around us. No, we accept the fact that we can never see far enough. So we employ ever-changing optical strategies that allow us to see just a bit father, and just a bit father — always motivated by the infinitude of space that, fortunately more than unfortunately, humbles us. 

Horace Babcock, Andrea Ghez, even Alan Watts — they’re all testaments to the fact that we ought to relentlessly chip away at the expansion our perspectives because, ultimately, there’s never enough to be seen.