Read with a trembling eye

Doug Johnstone reviews The Eye: A Natural History by Simon Ings, in the London Times:

EyeTo read this book has an odd and unsettling side effect. This is not through any fault of Simon Ings, who is a fine science writer, his prose precise and clear, his research meticulous and comprehensive. Nor is there any problem with the subject matter – the eye is a truly fascinating organ, its complex development, myriad forms and idiosyncratic workings across the animal kingdom making for a truly absorbing read.

Furthermore, Ings argues convincingly that the eye has had a profound effect on our language, perception, philosophy and even consciousness. No, the strange side-effect is brought about because – after reading 300 pages on how the eye works, its little quirks and foibles, its often counter-intuitive processes and processing – you become almost compulsively aware of what your own eyes are doing all the time, which is a bit off-putting.

Try reading this sentence without your eyes jolting from position to position across the page. You can’t, can you? That’s because every third of a second your eye “saccades”, or snaps from location to location, a restless activity brought about by the need to detect motion.

“The eye exists to detect movement,” Ings writes. “Any image, perfectly stabilised on the retina, vanishes. Our eyes cannot see stationary objects, and must tremble constantly to bring them into view.”

This extensive natural history of the eye is full of such delightful and disturbing little revelations.

More here.