The Eye of the Beholder

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Professor Sophia Schrodinger stood up from the lab bench where she had been working for the last several hours. The specimen was in perfect position, the apparatus calibrated, and the experiment was ready to go. She took a deep breath and looked down at the specimen, submerged in a conducting gel, carefully centered and locked in place, and in perfect alignment with the three Neon lasers, which were spaced around the room in an equilateral triangle. A Raman spectroscope was ready to monitor data once the experiment began and a large video display was set to interpret the data into images.

The specimen itself was an exquisitely preserved fossil trilobite. A rare specimen that even had antennae, and both walking and gill appendages well preserved underneath the carapace. The entire specimen, which Sophia had nicknamed “Buggy”, measured about 4 inches in length, but the only part necessary for the experiment was the eye. Two beautiful compound eyes present on the cephalon. The three lasers were focused on one specific point on the right eye. Tiny optical sensors were placed on the eye, very near the focal point of the laser.

As Sophia glanced at the checklist on procedures that needed to be done before the lasers could be activated, she thought again of what it must have been like to be little Buggy back in his own time 500 million years ago. Just then her post-doc, John Williams came into the lab with a big smile on his face and bag of chips in his hand. ”This is the day. Hey, Sophia”, he said. “I think I worked all the bugs out of the spectroscope this time. Well, all except for the one bug that is supposed to be there”. He popped a few more chips in his mouth then wiped his hands on his lab coat.

John looked over at Sophia. Her face was serious. A stranger might have no clue as to her emotions, but having been Professor Schrodinger’s post-doc for the last two years he could read her as easily as he could read the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance data on an unknown organic compound. “Just imagine what your great grandfather, Erwin would have thought about this”, he said excitedly.

“I know”, she said quietly. “I wish he could see it too”.

Sophia’s great grandfather, had been one of the founding fathers of Quantum Theory in the early 20th century and had even coined the term “Quantum Biology”. Now Sophia was a quantum biologist with an already very impressive collection of scientific achievements, that included everything from detailing the quantum transitions involved in chlorophyll pigment when photoactivated during photosynthesis, to measuring quantum tunneling events during passage of inorganic ions through protein channels. She was sure today’s experiment would rival all her other work.

She knew that this fossil contained the secret of quantum coherence on the supramolecular scale. It was the excellent preservation that held the key. The optical data that the trilobite eye received during its final moments of life would have been stored in the form of electron resonance patterns on the molecules of the eye. Only an arthropods compound eye with its inorganic crystal structure could preserve such data for such so long. A camera style eye, like that of a vertebrate would lose all such data once the soft tissues decomposed. This particular compound eye, Buggy’s eyes, last saw the world half a billion years ago, when there was only the beginnings of an evolutionary arms race between predators and prey, and no animals or plants had yet colonized the land.

Sophia looked at John. “We only have one chance with this specimen”, she said pointing at Buggy. “Once we excite the electrons in the calcite mineral, the quantum pattern will become decoherent and lost to us forever. Our only opportunity is to record the excitation states in real time, then replay our video”.

John looked around the room for the slushy he left there earlier. Once saw it he scooted his chair across the room to grab the blue drink. “My calculation indicate that only the last 120 seconds of visual activity would have been permanently recorded”.

“In other words”, said Sophia feeling her heart start to race, “we’ll only see 2 minutes of the Cambrian era and the last 2 minutes of Buggy’s life. I’d say that is a pretty important 2 minutes. Let’s just go through the checklist one last time”.

When they were satisfied that all systems were ready they looked at each other.
“Ready?”, Sophia said looking up at the screen.

“Yep”, said John as he prepared to start the process. “In 3, 2, 1, go. We have laser pulse, and signal from the target. Pulse was 3.4 microseconds, and the energy level is within the desired range. Several peak wavelengths, appear to be…” He was cut off by Sophia’s voice.

“Quick, look at the screen”, she yelled. “Amazing”!

The video display, which just a moment ago had been blank now showed a crystal clear picture of greenish water with light filtering down from above. It took John by surprise for a second as he thought it was a TV program at first. They could see a few other trilobites scurrying around near Buggy. In the water stream above a large shadow moved quickly overhead, and Sophia recognized it as Anomalocaris, the top predator of the time. Also, in the background was a small snake-like figure swimming through the water.

“Look there”, said Sophia. “That’s pikaea, our closest relative in this time period. A cordate that is related to all vertebrates alive today. He’s so beautiful”.

Just then a cloud of sediment seemed to fall from the sky and the screen went black.

“Poor Buggy”, said John. “He must have been buried in a sudden landslide. That’s why he was so well preserved. Well, Professor Schrodinger, that’ll make the cover of Nature”.

Sophia looked at Buggy. “Thanks, Buggy for letting us see the world through your wonderful eyes”.

About the Author: 
Physician, scientist, writer. I live with my wife Julie, two boys William and Oliver, and two crazy puppies Midnight and Monet. My science blog is at http://darwinskidneys.wordpress.com