Of Saucers and Corpuscles


          Twenty-two students at Sydney University yesterday morning saw “flying saucers,” similar to those which have been reported in the United State and Canada, where army planes are standing by to pursue them.

            One summer, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I found myself lying back on the concrete steps in our backyard, just enjoying the shade and gazing at the sky.  I’m not sure why I thought this was comfortable.  Nevertheless, the sky was a clear, dark shade of blue, easy to look at, not at all like the bright white-blue skies that make one squint.  There, as I gazed at nothing in particular, and meditated on the great philosophical questions of the day (yeah, right), I became aware of a peculiar phenomenon playing out right before my eyes.  I began to see spots moving across the sky.

Addressing a class of 450 students, Professor Cotton drew attention to cable messages reporting that hundreds of persons in many parts of the United States had reported having seen “flying saucers.”

These were not the spots of dizziness (I was lying down, after all), nor the “floaters” that tend to drift and then return with each new blink.  When you are young,  floaters are not permanent.  They usually mean that there really is something stuck in the mucous of the eye—something you can wipe away, if you try.  They can look like a wad of string, or a misshapen speck, but if you tear up and cry, or else rinse and wipe your eyes, they will usually go away.  Then, again, sometimes they just move about from side to side, and change orientation, depending on how well you can manipulate them with eye muscles, and head turns, while lying on concrete steps, and watching a clear blue sky.

He suggested that the students co-operate with him in experiments.  At his suggestion they left the lecture room, and before returning to the main building, carried out observations of the sky.  Professor Cotton suggested that they look at the sky about a mile away, and concentrate their gaze on a fixed point while standing perfectly still.  He asked them that if they saw any objects corresponding to those set out in the cable reports they should see him in the main medical school.  Within 10 minutes 22 students reported that they had seen the objects described. …

Perhaps not the most riveting of pastimes, but I was enjoying the show, nonetheless, magnified and sharply defined, as if under a well-focused microscope.  But then, I began to see something completely different, and quite unexpected.  Little white dots began to cross before me in random, meandering routes.  I tried to focus in on them, and I lost them.  They only appeared when I focused on nothing.  The more I focused on nothing, the clearer they stood out.  I could see then, that they were not dots, at all, but little ovals.  They crossed in many directions.  If I unfocused long enough, and didn’t blink, I could watch a single oval travel a long, twisted, narrow trail.  It would zig and zag along the way, but never linger, like a floater.  Always they passed in one side, and out the other. I noticed, soon after, that one oval would be followed by another oval following the exact same path.  Then another.  And another.  Like a string of pearls.  This was happening all over—my field of vision was crisscrossed with trails.

Professor Cotton said…that the students had seen what he expected them to see…

            I had always paid attention in Science class, and it dawned on me that I was witnessing blood cells coursing through the capillaries of my eyes.  I was fascinated.  I watched for a long time, mesmerized by the moment, and wondering whether this was a fluke of nature.  Would I ever be able to repeat this extraordinary phenomenon of seeing into my own eyes? 

(He) declared later that the “objects” seen by the students were caused by the movement of red corpuscles of the blood passing in front of the retina of the eye.             —The Sydney Morning Herald (Tuesday, July 8, 1947)

As it turns out, it is repeatable, and just as enthralling.  All it takes is just the right shade of easy blue, a little bit of patience, and the magic of convergence—the art of slow and deliberate observation that enables us to see what was there all along.

 —memories of an Iowa summer’s eve, 1967

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