the natural history of the eye

Well, here I am back in the office again. The conference was great – but it was on assessment in the tertiary education system: not something you want to hear about here 🙂

But during a break in the proceedings I slipped out & investigated the Lambton Quay bookshops… (Dangerous things, bookshops; I could easily put down roots in a good one!) And among other things, I came away with Simon Ings’ wonderful book, The Eye: a natural history.

I bought the book because this is what I read when I turned to the prologue: 

Natalie, my daughter, began life with one eye orbit placed centrally in her forehead. It appeared early – barely a week after her conception – in October 2002 and had things gone awry, there it would have remained, a wet cyclopean hollow, glowering in the shadow of a grotesque proboscis that would have grown in place of her nose.


This immediately reminded me of another book in my collection: Armand Marie Leroi’s excellent Mutants: on the form, varieties, and errors of the human body. (This is also the subject of a BBC series; unfortunately it’s never screened in New Zealand – I suppose TVNZ might be worried about viewers’ sensibilities as some of the images in the book are grotesque, to put it mildly.) Leroi also talks about cyclops babies – those where a major and early disruption of development leaves them with the features that Ings so graphically describes. And a whole lot of other stuff besides, from the perspective of what these disorders tell us about the genes that influence development.

Anyway, as you can tell, I was hooked. Haven’t finished reading The Eye yet (it’s only a short flight from Wellington to Hamilton) but so far I’ve found out about some neat work in the US that’s taught blind people to see with their chests. I’m not making this up! Paul Bach-y Rita‘s ‘eyes’ strap onto the wearer’s chest (or back). Each ‘vest’ contains 256 mechanical ‘tactors’ that touch the wearer in a particular pattern when activated by a small computer worn on a belt. That computer receives low-res pixellated images from a small video camera mounted on a pair of glasses, and each of those tactors corresponds to a pixel. The wearers very quickly learn to navigate around obstacles on the basis of the mental images they develop, & apparently over time can come to recognise faces.  Not only is this an amazing technical feat – it also demonstrates the considerable plasticity of our nervous system. Wonderful stuff! (Does the star-nosed mole see the world in the same way?)

S. Ings (2007) The Eye: a natural history. Bloomsbury.

A. M. Leroi (2005) Mutants: on the form, varieties, and errors of the human body. Harper Perennial.

12 thoughts on “the natural history of the eye”

  • “slipped out & investigated the Lambton Quay bookshops.”
    I know that experience – must be common for Hamiltonians in a city like Wellington or Auckland. We really need a good bookshop in Hamilton.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Ah, yes – Unity Books in Willis St, that rather good secondhand bookshop in Cuba St (both Wellington, for the non-kiwis…), the independent bookshop in Auckland’s Mt Eden village, & just along the road from that the shop that sells teas, teapots (got a nice tempered glass one there to brew my fancy green teas in) – & a great selection of genteel bodice-rippers (I thoroughly enjoy Georgette Heyer!)…

  • I’ve read Mutants, good book. When it came out I had mixed feelings, though, as I had thought to try my hand a writing a book about “natural mutants” myself, although from a different angle than he took, so part of me was a little disappointed!!
    I wouldn’t have though an eye orbit would be present that early in development. The embryo would still be a blastocyst at that stage and I can’t imagine it’d feature anything resembling an eye orbit. I’m not an embryologist and I’m out of time to check this out, but it seems too early to me. Perhaps he means some streak or furrow or whatnot that could go on to form an eye orbit?
    Although not an example of brain plasticity in the same way, cochlear implants are quite successful devices for replacing a lost sense and have been around for over 20 years now. There are now also auditory brain stem implants.
    There must be some “re-learning” each time someone gets a new sound map or hearing aid too, where the brain would have to adjust its internal “mapping” for input signals to sounds to whatever degree.
    Books, eh! I remember returning from England (where I did my Ph.D.) thinking that no bookshop in NZ could hold a light to the bookshops in Cambridge, Oxford or London. What do you think of Borders in Auckland? Or is that too pricey or too commercial? (Pretty much all bookshops are no go zones for me at the moment. Budgets… I love books, though. I love you saying that you could put down roots in a bookshop–I could too. I could imagine running one, too, but it strikes me as a tough business and science is too interesting to ever want to put aside.)
    But “genteel bodice-rippers”… Yikes! Backs off slowly…

  • Nothing important, but there is a timeout on the security text? I quite often get my comment refused with an error claiming I’ve entered the text wrong, when its plainly right to me. If a re-post and immediately enter the text its fine, which makes me think that there is a timeout expiring. Might be worth passing back to whoever runs the software?

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Well, maybe ‘bodice-ripper’ was a bit strong… But Georgian (period, not country!) damsels in distress, dastardly villians, & heroes what are thoroughly misunderstood but turn out to be gentlemen in the end 🙂 My mother had quite a collection of them; I really must ‘liberate’ one or two from my sister & renew my acquaintance with the genre. (Friends of mine are always giving me a hard time for reading science books at lunchtime – it would be amusing to see their reaction to a Heyer 😉 )
    Borders in Auckland – I think I’ve only been in there once. I do patronise the Wellywood branch on occasion, because they’re quite close to my usual meeting venues. All I can remember of the Auckland branch is thinking, ‘oh wow, floors & floors of books!’

  • Alison Campbell says:

    I am actually something of a techonological illiterate, so the quick answer is – I haven’t a clue! But I’ve passed your query on to the IT people & I’ll let you know what they think.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    It seems there is a timeout – this from the IT wiz who does all the hard stuff for me: I’ve studied the source code and believe that the answer is 600seconds –
    or 10mins.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    I hadn’t, but now I have – thanks for the link. Leroi would explain it in terms of the ‘organiser’ in very early embryonic development, wouldn’t he? (One extreme on the conjoined twins continuum?)

  • A few things:
    My brother, who’s a dairy farmer, had a stillborn two-headed calf a few years ago.
    I’ve seen the Mutants TV mini-series, it’s well worth a view if you can find it. Rather grisly in places, but engrossing.
    As for bookshops, I do like Borders in Auckland, and usually manage to find several things I’d like to get. Although occasionally when I’ve gone in looking for something specific thay haven’t had it. One of the best bookshops I’ve come across is Muirs in Gisborne – family-owned with a very good cafe, and more importantly jam-packed with all sorts of great books, including an excellent science/natural history section. Hamilton has nothing that comes close.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Oh yes, I forgot to include Muirs – haven’t been to Gisborne for a few years. But I have fond memories of both their science section & their cafe 🙂

  • Unity books is great. Arty Bees is good as well, although I know from experience that its science sections are not altogether well-stocked (pop science, at least). There is a specialist Medical Bookshop in Newtown, Wellington, that looks like it might have interesting things in it. I walk past it every day and always mean to check it out.
    Borders I always find a bit lacking, but then I’m usually looking for English lit, and they only ever seem to stock things that every English student has already read.
    Dunedin has some great secondhand bookshops like Scribes, but the University Book Shop is also really well-stocked. Oddly enough, a good secondhand bookshop has cropped up in Thames of all places, I don’t know how it thrives. If any of you are every passing through, check out ADDA Books on the Pollen Street.
    On the topic of mutants, I grew up on a pork and dairy farm in the Waikato/Coromandel region. I saw quite a few mutant piglets as a kid, they tended to be stillborn, or to die very quickly. My father did keep a pig with small second forelimbs coming off its knee-joints, though, and it thrived very well for a few years.

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