The Longform Guide to Sight

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
June 8 2013 7:30 AM

What a Sight

The Longform guide to vision (or lack thereof)

A blind person reads a book written in braille.
A blind person reads a book written in braille.

Photo by Jaime Reina/AFP/Getty Images

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.

Into the Light
Robert Kurson • Esquire • June 2005

After losing his sight at age 3, Michael May went on to become the first blind CIA agent, set a world record for downhill skiing, and start a successful Silicon Valley company. Then he got the chance to see again.

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“Weeks passed. When May mentioned the surgery to people, their responses were predictable and explosive: Sight means you get to see your wife and children; isn't that reason enough? But May didn't conceive of it that way. He felt so fully invested in his family, so in love with them, that he couldn't imagine anything—not even vision—deepening his connection to them. I already see my wife and kids, he would think to himself. And he felt that way about much of his life—that everything already seemed so wonderfully vivid.”

See No Evil
Skip Hollandsworth • Texas Monthly • May 1993

One killer's creepy obsession.

“Sitting around [Detective] Westphalen’s battleship-gray metal desk in the heart of the fluorescent-lit homicide office, detectives started throwing out theories. Maybe the killer had gotten AIDS from a prostitute and was out for revenge. Maybe he believed the old superstition that a murderer’s image always remains on the eyeballs of the person he kills. Maybe he believed a dead person’s eyes would follow him forever. Or maybe the killer took the eyeballs to fuel some sexual fantasy. Maybe he wanted to eat them—or cook them. The only thing Westphalen knew for sure was that the killer came out late at night, was strong enough to drag those girls in and out of a car, and had surgical skills. He also probably needed a well-lit room to do his surgery. Hell, somebody said, maybe this guy is a whacked-out doctor.

The Blind Man Who Taught Himself to See
Michael Finkel • Men’s Journal • March 2011

Daniel Kish had his eyes removed at age 1 because he was born with retinoblastoma, a cancer that attacks the retinas. But many people would never guess that he is blind.

“The first thing Daniel Kish does, when I pull up to his tidy gray bungalow in Long Beach, California, is make fun of my driving. ‘You're going to leave it that far from the curb?’ he asks. He's standing on his stoop, a good 10 paces from my car. I glance behind me as I walk up to him. I am, indeed, parked about a foot and a half from the curb.

“The second thing Kish does, in his living room a few minutes later, is remove his prosthetic eyeballs. He does this casually, like a person taking off a smudged pair of glasses. The prosthetics are thin convex shells, made of acrylic plastic, with light brown irises. A couple of times a day they need to be cleaned. ‘They get gummy,’ he explains. Behind them is mostly scar tissue. He wipes them gently with a white cloth and places them back in.”

Movies and TV: Murder or Merger?
John T. Rule • Atlantic • October 1953

How 3-D images affect the eye, plus proof that viewers have hated the technology since at least 1953.

“Each pair of human eyes receives a pair of images. The two are slightly different. This difference is the dominant factor in depth perception. Together with the focus of the eyes and the directions of sight, these images are all the evidence the brain has from which to interpret the world of space. A wrong interpretation can be more dangerous than blindness, for it encourages you to move with confidence rather than with caution. Nevertheless, you must make an interpretation, and you do so, effortlessly and immediately.

“In three-dimensional movies the fundamental problem is to create within the eyes two images which correspond as nearly as possible with those seen in the real world and thus to obtain the same interpretation from the brain. If the images in the two eyes are identical, as when viewing a normal movie, the mind has learned to know it is looking at a flat picture, even though it successfully reconstructs the solid original from such depth-indicating features as perspective and known size of objects. If the images are different the mind automatically interprets the difference in terms of depth. This is the reason that two pictures are required in 3-D and that a means of properly assigning them to the eyes—polarizing spectacles—is required.”

Blind Ambition
Brandon Sneed • ESPN • October 2012

Captain Iván Castro lost his vision in Iraq, but that didn’t stop him from running marathons.

“At first he couldn't figure out how to run. Ellipticals and bikes were stationary, but running, even on a treadmill—he had no feel. He fell often. Finally, a friend he made while at a Veteran's Administration blind rehab facility in Virginia suggested he and a guide use a shoelace. Back in North Carolina, shoelace in hand, Castro started running with some buddies at a Fort Bragg track. They started with 800-meter runs.

“In a month or so, 800 meters became a mile, and a mile became two or three, and from there it was just a matter of conditioning and pace, same as anyone. Sometimes he'd fall and twist an ankle or bang a knee, and his friends would ask if he was good to keep going. He'd laugh.

“‘Man, if pain could stop me, I'd already be dead.’”

Eye on the Universe
Jonathan Shaw and Jennifer Carling • Harvard Magazine • July-August 2008

And what would a guide to sight be without beautiful pictures? Images from the Hubble Space Telescope have given us a peek into the origins of the universe: Take a look at the photos and learn a bit about what we’ve seen.

“For nearly two decades, the orbiting telescope has radioed back to Earth images that have altered our understanding of the universe. The Hubble helped confirm the existence of dark matter: mass that we cannot see, but which nevertheless makes its gravitational influence visible by bending light itself. It proved the existence of black holes, previously a theoretical concept, and enabled the study of star formation and destruction—supernovae—as never before. The Hubble captured the first evidence that planet formation is common during the birth of stars, and has detected life-forming gas on extrasolar planets. It has provided dramatically improved estimates of the age of the universe, and led scientists to the inescapable conclusion that an unknown force—dark energy—is causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate.”

Double Vision
Lawrence Weschler • Virginia Quarterly Review • April 2009

The perspective-bending art of identical twins Trevor and Ryan Oakes.

“Try this: Gazing straight ahead (as you will no doubt at some point be urged to do if you start hanging out with Trevor and Ryan Oakes for any length of time these days), extend your right arm straight out to your side, perpendicular to your gaze, your hand in a fist, your thumb pointing upward, starting out from behind your ear and now slowly arcing the arm forward. (The Oakes boys, that is: identical twins, just past twenty-five years old, both artists, now living in New York City but before that from out of West Virginia.) At first you won’t see the upraised thumb, of course, but presently, there it will appear, at the periphery of your vision. Keep moving your arm forward until the thumb’s extended out there straight in front of your face at the center of your gaze; now with your left hand extended, thumb up, hand off the arcing transit, as it were, continuing along until eventually that thumb disappears behind your other ear. The thing is (as the Twins will explain with earnest enthusiasm and at quite considerable length), there was only a short part of that transit where you were seeing the thumbs with both eyes and hence with any sort of depth perception. Through most of the rest of the experiment, your nose was blocking the vision from out of one, and then the other, eye. And yet your brain, your visual cortex, was weaving the scene into one continuous, undifferentiated experience. (‘Pretty cool, no?’ By now the Twins will have veritably lit up with boyish enthusiasm.)”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.

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