28 March 2013

Optics and the Caveman Brain

You see with a Cave Man Brain

Ray-tracing in optics is one of those skills that is enjoyable to teach in class. A simple procedure, but with powerful results. Every year, I see a couple of students who struggled with the algebra of motion analysis who get a sense of accomplishment when mastering this technique. However, a few years ago, I noticed that many students seem to believe that the rays stopped at the image location. That is when I introduced the Giant Eye and the Caveman Brain.

I now start optics with a simple description of how the eye-brain combination works, that our brain has evolved to instinctively know that light has traveled a straight-line path from object to our eye. To illustrate, I get two volunteers to play a caveman and a fuzzy bunny.

We discuss the role of sunlight in seeing, how light reflects off the fuzzy bunny and goes in a straight line to the eye of the caveman. What would happen if the caveman's brain told the caveman that, while the light from the fuzzy bunny came from in front of him, the fuzzy bunny is over to the right? I have the caveman then throw a "spear" over to the right. I ask the class if this caveman will get to eat tonight. What if the brain told the caveman that the bunny was in the same direction that the light came from? The class caveman then throws the "spear" and "kills" the fuzzy bunny (a chance for some hammy acting). Caveman gets to eat tonight! And since I was on a roll, a couple of years ago, I added "Caveman makes fuzzy bunny slippers. Caveman gives to to cavewoman. (slight pause) Caveman pass on genes!"

While the actors are getting back to their seats, I emphasize that evolutionary pressure has made it so that we instinctively know that the light that enters our eye has traveled a straight line from object to eye. That lesson seems to help students understand lens and mirror optics later.

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