The wonders of the unseen world

Visiting the world-leading Science Museum in London last week, I was lucky to be able to attend a showing of a relatively recent (2013) addition to their collection of IMAX films, ‘The Mysteries of the Unseen World’. If you haven’t seen it, do try to see it at some point; at the very least, look at the website: The purpose of the film was to give the viewers an insight into the world that exists around us all the time, and yet is invisible to us. It explored the broad light spectrum, for instance, and imagined what the world would look like if we could see infrared or ultraviolet rays; we were also treated to slowed-down photography of actions that are too fast for us to see normally (raindrops hitting water, for example), and speeded-up photography of actions that are too slow for us to see – the growth of plants and the decay of food, amongst others. The film took us down into the microworld and reminded us (rather uncomfortably!) of the mites that live in the dust around us, and then it led us, deeper still, into the nanoworld – that amazing state at the atomic level about which we are still learning, and where the laws of gravity and inertia do not appear to apply.

It was a fascinating peek into the enormous omplexity of the ecosystems in which we live, and which we take for granted most of the time, unaware of them as we are. It was also a salutary reminder that we interfere with this complexity at our peril. Any actions we take as individuals will almost inevitably have unforeseen and conceivably harmful consequences on the world around us; our ignorance of the vast unseen world around us means that it is doubtful whether we can predict even a fraction of the outcomes of our choices. It follows, of course, that when this ignorance is multiplied a billion-fold (or seven billion-fold), potentially harmful consequences can become overwhelming and fatal. In essence, a nudge towards appreciating the unseen world around us reminds us to think a bit more carefully about our environment and the choices we make as a human race.

The film made me think still further, however, about what else is unseen in our world.  What else, other than the physical elements explored in the presentation, impacts on our lives in a tangible way but remains unseen? An obvious answer, of course, lies in all our thoughts and feelings, which affect how we view not only the world but our role within it, and which help direct our actions and our choices. Just imagine if we could see thoughts and feelings; the air would be thick with them, in the same way that it is thick with infrared and ultraviolet rays. Cultural expectations, prejudices, hopes, fears, preoccupations, memories, dispositions, and any and every emotion on the spectrum from joy to rage – just imagine for a moment what it would be like.

When we ruminate upon this, then we realise that to a certain extent we can already see, or at least sense, some of these thoughts and feelings. Estimates vary as to how much of normal communication between humans depends on interpreting non-verbal signals; it could conceivably be as high as 93%. When we meet people for the first time, it takes us a fraction of a second to make a judgement about them – we pick up and process tiny clues about their posture, their physiology, their stance, their expressions, and even their smell. When they speak, we hear not only words but intonation and emphasis. The more practised we become in this art, the more visible the signals appear.

Still, though, it would take a leap further forward in our perceptual powers to be able actually to expose thoughts in the way that an infra-red camera can expose infra-red waves. Ignorance of this unseen world, however, is potentially as harmful as ignorance of the unseen physical world: our actions can have untold consequences, resulting potentially in misunderstandings and lack of connection. In many cases these will be trivial; not so, however, in many others, and certainly not when it comes to relationships between nation states or even different social groups, when conflicting strong emotions can cause rising tensions.

So – a thought for the day – if we could take time to become just a little more aware of the unseen thoughts and emotions which we project, and which others feel and project too, we might find surprising benefits. Perhaps this greater awareness of being open to scrutiny, and visible, might encourage us to look more closely at our inner world and to work even harder on disciplining and taming some of the less savoury elements which most of us would prefer to remain hidden, so that we can pretend that we not possess them – intolerance, arrogance and anger, for instance.

Little steps of awareness that might just go a long way to making the sum of our human interactions so much more harmonious.


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