An unexpected experience connects with my childhood love of science

I’ve developed cataracts. Nothing very surprising there: there’s a family history of cataracts, and 42% of people here in the US between 52 and 64 are affected. So I’ve moved quickly through the various stages of understanding:

  • Shit, what’s happening to my eyesight? Did my optometrist screw up my last prescription?
  • Hmmm, I’m having difficulty reading highway signs. Perhaps I should get this checked.
  • Cataracts? Eye surgery? Ick…
  • Hmm, lens implants. How does that work? Let’s watch the video…. Wow, that’s cool!
  • Just a minute… you can choose any power lens you want? So I could get 20/20 distance vision and use reading glasses? So I could go out… walk… drive… without glasses for the first time since I was 4 years old? Awesome!

And so that’s what I’m going to be doing during September and October, spread out to accommodate travel and other stuff.
But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

I was sitting in the optometrist’s office, going through the usual left eye/right eye tests, reading the charts (“Can you read off line 2 to me?” “There’s a line 2???“), and suddenly she handed me a black paddle with a pin-hole. “Look through this,” she said, “and tell me what you can read.” And after a moment’s adjustment, I was able to read off the whole chart. Then I moved the pin-hole slightly, and everything went blurry. From somewhere inside me, an 8-year old voice asked if she could wait for a moment, and by moving the pin-hole around I was able to trace out the blotchy shapes of the cataracts on my lens. And as I did so, I was back in 1958, in our house in London NW2, lying in front of the fire in the sitting room, reading the dark green, leatherette-bound, 18-volume encyclopedia of science that my mother had bought for me at a jumble sale, and reviewing the diagrams of the optics of the eye, filled with awe at the power of science.
We all assume that a trained professional can measure things like cataracts to sub-millimetric precision using fancy technology. But it was surprising – delightful! – to find that I could visualize the same phenomena using a $5 piece of plastic. That was a very cool experience.