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  • Writer's pictureD. Randall Faro

Not Really Red

It would seem an amazing accomplishment that over 200,00 species have been identified in the world’s saltwater bodies, yes? In a review of Eloquence of the Sardine by Bill François Jeffery Johnson notes: “Scientists estimate that 2.2 million species live in the oceans (not counting billions of species of bacteria). Less than 10 percent of these have been discovered and named.” That means there are only one million nine hundred and eighty thousand (1,980,000) critters yet to add to our catalog of marine creatures. Our current knowledge is barely a good start.

Years ago I read the book A Hundred Billion Stars by the Italian astronomer, Mario Rigutti. He says that, to pick around number, there are a hundred billion stars in our galaxy. Just OUR galaxy! And that’s the small picture. The professionals posit that there are approximately 200 billion trillion (200 sextillion) stars in the universe. One who thinks they comprehend that is living in self-deception.

There are also lots of things we think we know but really don’t, or at least don’t understand. To state that something is real is sometimes simply shorthand for something that isn’t. Take color; it isn’t real. Color only exists in a person’s head. There’s such a thing as light. There’s such a thing as energy. But there’s no such thing as color. As Wellesley neuroscientist Bevil Conway, who studies color and vision, explains: “Color is this computation that our brains make that enables us to extract meaning from the world.” For example, apples aren’t actually red. They appear red because electromagnetic waves (light) hit the surface of the apple which absorbs all the other wavelengths and only reflects the red ones. As this light enters the eye, photoreceptors in the eye and the brain then “read” this stimulus as a color which we perceive to be red. But this is simply a perception. There’s no such thing, objectively speaking.

The point of the comments on ocean life, the stars, and apples is simply that what we know compared to what there is to know is so infinitesimal as to be unmeasurable. The supremely learned author Bill Bryson in his books, A Short History of Nearly Everything and The Body (both highly recommended), emphasizes over and over that there is much more mystery in life than knowledge. Blogger Sarah Chauncey ( put it this way in one of her posts where she ruminates on the limitations of our minds: “The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t know anything for sure.”

Lesson one: don’t get too haughty (or haughty at all) about what one thinks one knows. Humility is one of the steppingstones on the path to peace. Lesson two: jump for joy when learning new and interesting (and perhaps even useful) stuff. Children get deliriously delighted when finding tadpoles in a puddle. Let’s not lose that.

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