We tend to fall into the trap of assuming that ‘reality’ consists of what we sense around us via our sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. But of course that is not true: we only ‘see’ electromagnetic waves in the range from around 430 to 790 THz, we only hear audio waves between roughly 20Hz and 20kHz, and so on. Artist Nickolay Lamm has addressed that assumption in his work by imagining what the National Mall in Washington D.C. would look like if we could see Wi-Fi signals. Lamm consulted with M. Browning Vogel, an astrophysicist and former NASA employee, as well as a map of wireless coverage in the D.C. area, in order to bring some realism to his art, although obviously there has to be some artistic licence in visualising things beyond our brain’s capability.
Lamm’s artwork brought to mind some quotes by others on the way in which we reduced our concept of ‘reality’ to only a tiny slice of it. And even when embracing the tools of science, we still perhaps make assumptions about the extent of our discoveries. For instance, as Buckminster Fuller said:
Up to the Twentieth Century, reality was everything humans could touch, smell, see and hear. Since the initial publication of the chart of the electromagnetic spectrum, humans have learned that what they can touch, smell, see, and hear is less than one-millionth of reality.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman uses the German word umwelt (meaning ‘environment’, or ‘surroundings’) to describe that tiny slice of reality that we are aware of, but which we often take for the entirety of existence:
Each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entirety of objective reality. Until a child learns that honeybees enjoy ultraviolet signals and rattlesnakes see infrared, it is not obvious that plenty of information is riding on channels to which we have no natural access. In fact, the part of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to us is less than a ten-trillionth of it. Our sensorium is enough to get by in our ecosystem, but no better.
There are two topics that branch off from these thoughts that interest me greatly. First, is the idea of augmentation: humans getting magnets embedded in their fingers so that they can sense magnetic fields, augmented reality apps that might show other parts of the spectrum to us via Google Glass-type hardware, and so on. The other topic is what might lie beyond our current science. For example, theoretical physicist Andrei has pondered the question of whether “consciousness may exist by itself, even in the absence of matter, just like gravitational waves, excitations of space, may exist in the absence of protons and electrons?” Linde compares the manner in which Einstein’s discoveries changed forever our assumption of the independence of space, time and matter. “The standard assumption is that consciousness, just like spacetime before the invention of general relativity, plays a secondary, subservient role, being just a function of matter and a tool for the description of the truly existing material world. [But] could it be that consciousness is an equally important part of the consistent picture of our world?”