We are all inattentive superheroes

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how we can make humans better, and what the consequences of making people better might be, so reading about how amazing people already are. Brad Voytek is a neuroscientist, and he has an amazing post on the power of our senses.

We're used to thinking of our senses as being pretty shite: we can't see as well as eagles, we can't hear as well as bats, and we can't smell as well as dogs.

Or so we're used to thinking.

It turns out that humans can, in fact, detect as few as 2 photons entering the retina. Two. As in, one-plus-one.

It is often said that, under ideal conditions, a young, healthy person can see a candle flame from 30 miles away. That's like being able to see a candle in Times Square from Stamford, Connecticut. Or seeing a candle in Candlestick Park from Napa Valley.

Similarly, it appears that the limits to our threshold of hearing may actually be Brownian motion. That means that we can almost hear the random movements of atoms.

We can also smell as few as 30 molecules of certain substances.

I mean, we're talking serious Daredevil-level detection here!

Our sensory organs are limited by the laws of physics, not by biology, or evolution, or anything else. We can detect the universe as well as the universe can be detected. The limits on what we sense are not in our eyes and ears, they're in the brain, where we decide how to pay attention to everything that's coming in. There are probably some valuable lessons for distraction, cognition, and focus, but I'm going to take a day off and just marvel at biology.


Waves of Innovation

By the way, yr humble correspondent has published another article at Science Progress.

Innovation is a serious matter. It is the key to American prosperity, security, better jobs, and better health, as well as responses to coming challenges like energy security and global warming. But it’s not as simple as the president’s State of the Union address, or his Strategy for American Innovation would suggest, according to a recent study of economic history. The authors argue there are historic patterns in innovation and industry that can inform science policy in the 21st century. Read the rest