Yesterday’s supermoon, the closest and brightest in seven decades, is dramatic precisely because it fails to push back the darkness of night. King Solomon warns us of the pitfalls of living “under the sun,” reminding us that too much light can blind us to the dangers posed by our own misperception — a theme that figures prominently in my book Proverbial Beauty. I’m taking the opportunity to revisit this article from 2009.
Imagine if, in the late 1990s, a freshman congressman in the House of Representatives had submitted, as his first piece of legislation, a bill requiring airlines to install high-security doors on all passenger planes between the cockpit and the cabin. Imagine that the bill narrowly passed, was signed into law, and resulted — at great inconvenience and expense — with enhanced security for every commercial flight crew by the summer of 2001.
What would such an initiative have produced? Most notably (or really, just the opposite), September 11 would be a date of no greater significance than August 3. No terrorists would have seized those airliners and flown them into the Twin Towers that day. Perhaps American troops would never have gone into Afghanistan or Iraq. Perhaps the economy would not (yet) have collapsed. Quite possibly, Barack Obama would never have been elected president in an anti-George W. Bush backlash.
In his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable , economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb proposes just such a scenario. But Mr. Taleb focuses less on the global consequences than on the fate of our fictional congressman — let’s call him Joe Smith. Congressman Smith will not be remembered as the hero who prevented the worst terrorist attack in history, precisely because he successfully prevented it. In all likelihood, he will be loudly denounced as the architect of an expensive and irrelevant measure and hounded out of office. He may live out his life regret his own lack of political saavy, which ended his career before it had even begun.
A complicated and often elusive treatise, The Black Swan proposes a correlation between history’s most significant events and the degree to which they were unanticipated. The stock crashes of 1929 and 1987; the outbreak of both world wars; the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Each of these came as a profound shock to the world; only with the benefit of hindsight have historians explained all of them as political and economical inevitabilities.
Moreover, the lessons learned from history’s most earth-shattering events tend consistently to be exercises in locking the barn door after the horse has run away. Both individually and collectively, we implement strategies that would have changed the course of history had we applied them earlier, failing to realize that our measures to correct address the specific circumstances that shaped the past rather than the broader principles that will determine the future. The more closely we focus on what we expect to happen, the more we increase the probability that the future will arrive from an entirely unimagined direction.
DON’T LOOK NOW
The human eye is a truly remarkable organ. It is self-focusing, adjusts instantly from close-range to distance, discerns color and texture, judges distance, and adapts to bright sunlight, inky darkness, and everything in between. It allows us to focus on a single point of interest while, through our faculty of peripheral vision, we continue to process information coming in from all sides to provide context and enable us to respond to changing conditions.
Instinctively and intuitively, we place the object of immediate interest at the center of our optic and cognitive attention. But this is not always the most effective means of perception. We have all experienced instances of looking directly at an object and failing to see it, either because it is so familiar or unremarkable that our minds filter it out as irrelevant, or because it is so incongruous that our subconscious refuses to accept its presence. In such cases, we may notice an object only when we are looking elsewhere and our peripheral vision, unencumbered by the censorship of our expectations, draws our attention back to that which had previously hidden in plain sight.
This phenomenon — called averted vision — was first alluded to by Aristotle and has become particularly important among astronomers, who have found that observing an object peripherally may increase its resolution by up to three or four magnitudes. Because the center of the eye contains only cones, which perceive brightness and color, fainter objects are more easily detected by the rods, which perceive dim, monochromatic light and occupy the outer regions of the eye.
LOOK AWAY AND ALL WILL BE REVEALED
We live in a world that, on its surface, seems well-ordered and readily understood. The cycle of seasons follows its natural course with relative predictability. The habits of animals remain virtually unchanged. The waters of the earth flow downward from the mountains to the seas, evaporate and rise up to the firmament, then return to the earth as rain.
On closer inspection, however, the world is a place of profound mystery. Solid objects are composed of increasingly tiny particles, many of which are spinning wildly in microscopic orbits at nearly the speed of light. Hundreds of other sub-atomic particles waft about our universe, many without any clear direction or purpose. The beginnings of physical existence and life itself cannot be substantiated through any empirical evidence or rational theory. The force of gravity, which is so fundamental that we scarcely give it any thought, has no satisfactory explanation.
Atoms, the building blocks of our universe, had never been directly observed until last year, when an electronic microscope powerful enough to view them was finally engineered. The protons, neutrons, and electrons, as well as those myriad other sub-atomic particles, are still yet to be seen. So how do we know they exist? Indirect evidence — the averted vision of science. By analyzing observable evidence, scientists have determined that these particles must exist to explain otherwise unexplainable phenomena.
But why should our universe be so impenetrably shrouded in mystery? The sages of the Talmud explain that ours is a world of hester ponim — a world in which the Almighty “hides His face.” The familiarity of the material world draws all our attention, distracts us from the true spiritual nature that reveals itself only at the periphery of our vision. The unanswered questions of science, the anomalies of nature, the enigmas of philosophy, the improbability of the cosmic and individual “coincidences” that surround us daily — all these testify to the order and the One who imposed order upon the universe. They whisper to us from the corners of our consciousness and beckon us from the edges of our awareness, vanishing to insignificance amidst the cacophony of physical existence the moment we try to focus on them, then reappearing as soon as we turn our attention elsewhere.
Search for G-d and all His might, says King David, seek His presence always.The harder we try to find order in our lives, the more chaotic our world seems to become. By allowing the subtle evidence that flutters at the fringes of Creation to hold out attention, however indirectly, the more we make our hearts and minds sensitive to the spiritual reality that is the foundation of the physical universe and the human condition.