When I was a kid we learned about a boy named Roy. Roy G. Biv—or rather ROY G BIV—was a way to remember the colors of the spectrum: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. We see these in the rainbow. It’s been a good season for rainbows here in Siskiyou County as we’ve had a lot of days of mixed sun and rain. Summer’s onslaught is underway; the spring conditions favorable to rainbows will be gone soon.
The white light we perceive is a mixture of all these other colors of light. That’s not intuitive, our sense of color mixing usually comes from paint and pigments, and mixing that stuff all together just makes variations of turd brown. But that’s not why I’m thinking about a boy named Roy, that is, ROY G BIV. Red is something we perceive and we can measure electromagnetic phenomena of particular wavelengths and frequencies that we can assign to this experience we call ‘red.’ Same up the chart all the way to violet. Anything below a wavelength of 390 nanometers (10^−9 or one-billionth of a meter) or above a wavelength of 700 nm is not normally visible to the human eye. Red frequencies are on the low end, around 430 Terahertz (10^12 or one trillion cycles per second) and violet at the upper, around 770 THz. Thus we have the terms ultra-violet (UV) for frequencies above the violet range and infra-red (IR) for those below.
We know these kinds of light exist even though we can’t see them. Sunburns are a painful reminder of UV, and IR radiation keeps us from getting too close to the woodstove. Even a science-hostile person knows that these phenomena are ‘real.’ And once we’ve slipped past the boundary of ROY G BIV we get all the other electromagnetic waves that we can’t see, like AM/FM radio waves, TV signals, microwaves, X-rays, and whatnot. Our instruments can detect these things and we can ‘prove’ they exist, that is, demonstrate them to our intellectual satisfaction, but we don’t perceive them with our senses.
What’s interesting to me is that ROY G BIV is only a tiny part of this thing we call the electromagnetic spectrum. A very tiny part. So there is all this stuff out there that is part of the universe and we don’t directly experience it. That to me is a serious statement. People talk all the time about invisible things and argue passionately about them. God and ghosts come to mind. But here we have ACTUAL PHYSICAL EVIDENCE of fantastic invisible things! We don’t have to make up stories. We don’t have to speculate. We already have ‘proof’ of bizarre, amazing stuff like gamma rays and cosmic rays. And that’s stuff we know a lot about. There’s all kinds of crazy electromagnetic nonsense going on out there that we hardly know anything about and it warps my mind.
It warps my mind because it reminds me how limited my perceptual apparatus is. I can ‘tune in’ and get ROY G BIV but not the rest. Those require modern technology. The universe is a much bigger and a much stranger place than we realize. And I’m only talking about the stuff we can detect with our devices. People have conjured up all sorts of nutty notions over the millenia and to me IT ALL PALES IN COMPARISON to the nutty stuff we’ve come to discover with our new, enhanced sensory schemes. The biological equipment we started with plus our inventions allow us to perceive a world far more exciting and terrifying than anything we thought of before.
That’s pretty cool, don’t you think? But it’s not the groovy tech I’m stoked about. I think knowing how feeble our perceptions really are is the heart of things. I think we need daily reminders of what clumsy and ignorant beings we are. I think it will make us more humble, and thus open to learning. We say “I was there, I saw it with my own two eyes!” all the time and affirm our visual power. But it’s nonsense. We hardly see shit! If we remember how much of the universe that we know about is freaky and mysterious, maybe we’ll chill out about the stuff we think we are so certain about. Certainty, my friends, is boring. And the ones who are the most certain are the worst conversationalists!