Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/June 1894/The Eye as an Optical Instrument

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I HAVE often wondered whether the statement, occasionally made by physicists, that the human eye is not a perfect optical instrument, is an expression of human vanity or of an imperfect knowledge of the anatomy of the eye and the physiology of vision; and I have come to the conclusion that the latter is the more reasonable theory. The approach to perfection in modern telescopes and microscopes is wonderful indeed; but as physiologists have advanced the knowledge of vision, the so-called imperfections of the eye have been steadily disappearing; and even now there is much to learn. Viewed merely as an optical instrument, an apparatus contained in a globe less than an inch in diameter, in which is produced an image practically perfect in form and color, which can be accurately adjusted almost instantly for every distance from five inches to infinity, is movable in every direction, has an area for the detection of the most minute details and at the same time a sufficient appreciation of large objects, is double, but the images in either eye exactly coinciding, enables us to see all shades of color, estimate distance, solidity, and to some extent the consistence of objects, the normal human eye may well be called perfect. The more, indeed, the eye is studied in detail, the more thoroughly does one appreciate its perfection as an optical apparatus.

Were it not for a slight projection of the cornea (the transparent covering in front) the eye would have nearly the form of a perfect globe a small fraction less than an inch in diameter. It lies in a soft bed of fat, is held in place by little muscles and a ligament which is so lubricated that its movements take place with the minimum of friction. It is protected by an overhanging bony arch and the eyelids, the eyelashes keeping away dust, and the eyebrows directing away the sweat. Situated thus in the orbit, the eyes may be moved to the extent of about forty-five degrees; but beyond this it is necessary to move the head.

The accuracy of vision depends primarily upon the formation of a perfect image upon the retina, which is a membrane, sensitive to light, connected with the optic nerve. That such an image is actually formed has been demonstrated by an instrument, the ophthalmoscope, which enables us to look into the eye and see the image itself. Although the image is inverted, the brain takes no cognizance of this, and every object is appreciated in its actual position. The image is formed in the eye in the way in which an image is produced and thrown on a screen by a magic lantern.

When a ray of light passes obliquely from the air through glass, water or other transparent media, it is bent, or refracted, and the angle at which it is bent is called the index of refraction. In passing to the retina, the rays of light pass through the cornea, a watery liquid (the aqueous humor) surrounding the lens, the crystalline lens, and a gelatinous liquid (the vitreous humor) filling the posterior two thirds of the globe, all of which have the same index of refraction. This provides that a ray of light, having once passed through the cornea, is not refracted in passing through the other transparent media, except by the curvatures of the crystalline, which is a double-convex lens situated just behind the pupil. The rays of light are not reflected within the eye itself, for the opaque parts of the globe are lined with a black membrane (the choroid), as the tube of a microscope is blackened for a similar purpose. Practically, the bending of the rays of light is produced by the curved surface of the cornea and

PSM V45 D214 Human eyeball with outer wall of orbit removed.jpg

Fig. 1.—This figure gives a general view of the eyeball, the outer wall of the orbit being removed: 1, tendon of origin of three of the muscles of the eyeball; 2, the external straight muscle divided and turned down so as to expose the lower straight muscle; 3, 4, 5, 6,7, 8, muscles moving the eyeball; 9, 10, 10, muscle which raises the upper eyelid; 11, optic nerve. (After Sappey.)

the two curved surfaces of the double-convex crystalline lens. These three curved surfaces bring the rays from an object to a focus exactly at the retina in a normal eye. When, however, the eye is too long, the focus is in front of the retina unless, in near vision, the object be brought very near the eye, and the person is near-sighted. For ordinary vision, such persons must wear properly adjusted concave glasses to carry the focus farther back. When the eye is too short, the focus is behind the retina, and the person is far-sighted and must wear convex glasses. The first condition is called myopia, and the second, hypermetropia; but in most persons who are obliged to wear convex glasses in advanced

PSM V45 D215 Diagrammatic section of the human eye.jpg
Fig. 2.—Diagrammatic Section of the Human Eye.

life, the crystalline lens has become flattened and inelastic, the diameter of the eye being unaltered. This condition is called presbyopia, which means a defect in vision due to old age.

One of the wonderful things about the eye is the mechanism by which a perfect image is formed. What is called the area of distinct vision is a depression in the yellow spot of the retina, which is probably not more than a thirty-sixth of an inch in diameter. It is with this little spot that we examine minute details of objects. If we receive the rays of light from an object upon a double-convex lens and throw them upon a screen in a darkened room, the image of the object appears upon the screen; but in order to render this image even moderately distinct it is necessary to carefully adjust the lens, or the combination of lenses, to a certain distance, which is different for lenses of different curvatures. In the human eye the adjustment is most accurately made, almost instantaneously, for any desired distance, not by changing the distance between the crystalline lens and the retina, but by changing the curvature of the crystalline lens itself. The way in which this is done has been known only within the last few years. The lens is elastic, and in a quiescent, or what is called an indolent condition, is compressed between the two layers of the ligament which holds it in place. In this condition, when the rays from distant objects are practically parallel as they strike the eye, the lens is adjusted for infinite distance. When, however, we examine a near object, by the action of a little muscle within the eyeball the ligament is relaxed and the elastic lens becomes more convex. This action is called accommodation, and is voluntary,

PSM V45 D216 Visual portion of the retina as seen by the ophtalmoscope.jpg

Fig. 3.—Visual Portion of the Retina as seen by the Ophthalmoscope; magnified about seven and a half diameters, showing the blood-vessels branching; from the point of entrance of the optic nerve, and the yellow spot surrounded by the dotted oval. (After Loring.)

though usually automatic. The fact that it is voluntary is illustrated by the very simple experiment of looking at a distant object through a gauze placed a few feet from the eye. When we see the distant object distinctly, we do not see the gauze; but by an effort we can distinctly see the meshes of the gauze, and then the object becomes indistinct. In some old persons the lens not only becomes flattened, but it loses a great part of its elasticity and the power of accommodation is nearly lost.

The changes in the curvatures of the lens in accommodation have been actually measured. The lens itself is only about a third of an inch in diameter and its central portion is only a fourth of an inch thick. Adjusted for infinite distance, the front curvature has a radius of about four tenths of an inch, while for near objects the radius is only about three tenths of an inch. A curious experiment is looking at a minute object through a pinhole in a bit of paper or cardboard, when the object appears highly magnified. This is because the nearer the object is to the eye, the larger it appears. The shortest normal distance of distinct vision is about five inches; but in looking through a pinhole we can see at a distance of less than an inch, using a very small part of the central portion of the crystalline lens. Accommodation for very near objects is assisted, also, by contraction of a little band of fibers in the iris, about a fiftieth of an inch in width, immediately surrounding the pupil.

The most wonderful thing about the formation of a perfect image upon the retina is the mechanism of correction for form

PSM V45 D217 Section of the lens showing the mechanism of accommodation.jpg

Fig. 4.—Section of the Lens showing the Mechanism or Accommodation. The left side of the figure (F) shows the lens adapted to vision at infinite distances. The right side of the figure (N) shows the lens adapted to the vision of near objects. (After Fick.)

and color. In grinding lenses for the microscope, for example, it is mechanically easy to make a very small convex lens with perfectly regular curvatures—that is, each curvature being a portion of a perfect sphere; but in such a lens the focus of the central portion is longer than that of the parts near the edge; and when an object is in focus for the center it is out of focus for the periphery. This is a fatal objection to the use of uncorrected lenses of high power; but in microscopes it is corrected by combinations of lenses, reducing the magnifying power, however, about one half. This is not all. When white light passes through a simple lens it is decomposed into the colors of the spectrum. This is called dispersion, and it surrounds the object with a fringe of colors. The dispersion by concave lenses is exactly the opposite of the dispersion by convex lenses, so that this may be corrected by a combination of the two; but when this is done with lenses made of precisely the same material, the magnifying power is lost. Newton supposed that it was an impossibility to construct a lens corrected for color which would magnify objects; but since the discovery (in 1753 and 1757) of different kinds of PSM V45 D218 Achromatic lens.jpgFig. 5.—Achromatic Lens. glass having the same refractive power but widely different dispersive powers, perfect lenses have been possible,

In human eye, a practically perfect image, with no alteration in color, is produced by a mechanism which human ingenuity can not imitate. There is a slight error in the cornea, which is corrected by an opposite error in the crystalline lens; the iris plays the part of the diaphragm of optical instruments and shuts off the light from the borders of the crystalline lens, where the error is greatest, particularly in near vision; the curvatures of the lens are not perfectly spherical, but are such that the form of objects is not distorted; and while such curvatures are theoretically calculable, their construction is practically impossible, as experience has shown; different layers of the crystalline lens have different dispersive powers; and thus a practically perfect image, with no appreciable decomposition of white light, is formed on the retina.

Another wonderful thing about the eye, which adapts it most beautifully to our requirements, is the division of the sensitive parts of the retina into a very small area for distinct vision, which we use for reading, for example, and a large surrounding area in which vision is indistinct. If we saw with equal distinctness with all parts of the retina, the vision of minute objects would be confused and imperfect. As it is, the area of distinct vision is very small, probably less than one thirty-sixth of an inch in diameter. In this area, the distance between the separate sensitive elements is not more than one thirty-five-hundredth of an inch; while, if we pass from this only eight degrees, the distance is increased a hundred times. Still, in looking at any one object in the center of distinct vision, the imperfect forms of surrounding objects are appreciated, warning us, perhaps, of the approach of danger.

The mechanism of distinct and indistinct vision has been understood only since 1876. The sensitive parts of the retina are little rods and cones forming a layer by themselves. In 1876, Boll discovered that in frogs kept in the dark the rods of the retina were colored a dark purple; but on exposure to light the color faded, becoming first yellow and then white. Since that time, physiologists have been carefully investigating visual purple and visual yellow. Just outside the layer of rods and cones are the dark cells which render the greatest part of the interior of the eye almost black. In the dark, these cells send little filaments between the rods and discharge a liquid which colors the rods alone. When the rods are thus colored, the eye is extremely sensitive, so that a bright light is dazzling and painful and obscures distinct vision. This is the reason why we can not see distinctly when we come suddenly from the dark into a full light. In a few seconds, however, the color is bleached to a yellow and the difficulty passes away. When, on the other hand, we pass from a bright light into the dark, the retina has lost its sensibility from disappearance of the visual purple, and we can not see at all until the purple is reproduced, as it is in the absence of light. This difference is not due to dilatation of the pupil in the dark and contraction under the influence of light, as is popularly supposed, for a person does not see better in the dark when the pupil has been fully dilated by belladonna.

In the little area of distinct vision there is never any visual purple. This area we always use with sufficient light for minute details of objects, making then the greatest use of the mechanism of accommodation. The area outside of this is used for indistinct vision, and as the color is then yellow instead of purple, it is only moderately sensitive. To express the conditions in a few words, the minute area for distinct vision is used by day, and the area for indistinct vision, with its visual purple, is used by night.

A very curious condition is what is known as night-blindness. Sometimes, in long tropical voyages, sailors become affected with total blindness at night, while vision in the daytime is perfect. The glare of the sun in the long days bleaches the visual purple so completely that it can not be restored in a single night, and the area of indistinct vision becomes insensible. This trouble is purely local and is remedied by rest of the eye. If one eye be protected by a bandage during the day, this eye will be restored sufficiently for the next night's watch, while the unprotected eye is as bad as ever. Snow-blindness in the arctic regions is due to the same cause.

We receive the impression of a single object, although there are two images one in either eye; but it is necessary that the images be made upon corresponding points in the two retinæ. If the angle of vision in one eye be deviated even to a slight degree by pressing on one globe with the finger, we see two images. One can appreciate how exactly these points must correspond when it is remembered that two rays of light appear as one only when the distance between them is one thirty-five-hundredth of an inch.

In either eye there is a blind spot, and this is at the point of penetration of the optic nerve; but, inasmuch as this spot is in the area of indistinct vision, and is so situated a little within the line of distinct vision that an impression is never made on both blind spots by the same object, this blindness is never appreciable, and the spot can be detected only by the most careful investigation.

Not the least of the wonders of the eye are connected with the appreciation of images made upon the retina by certain parts of the brain. It is literally true that a person may see and yet not perceive. It has happened, in certain injuries of the brain, that a person sees and reads the words in a book and yet does not perceive their significance. This is called word-blindness. In a certain portion of the brain is a part which enables us to recognize the fact that we see an object; yet this object conveys no idea. There are two of these so-called centers of vision, one on either side, and their action is partly crossed. When the center is destroyed on one side, the inner half of one eye and the outer half of the other eye are blinded. Farther back in the brain, however, is a center which enables us to perceive or understand what is seen. When this center is destroyed we see objects and may avoid obstacles in walking, but persons, words, etc., are not recognized. This center exists only on the left side of the brain.

An impression, however short, made upon the retina is perceived. The letters on a printed page are distinctly seen when illuminated by an electric spark, the duration of which is only forty billionths of a second; but the impression remains much longer. Anything in motion appears to us in a way quite different from the single impression that we should have from an electric spark. In a picture representing an animal in motion, as it appears in an instantaneous photograph, the positions seems absurd and like nothing we have ever seen. In looking at a horse in action, the impressions made by the different position of the animal run into each other, and art should represent as nearly as possible the sum or average of these impressions. It is also true that impressions are diffused in the retina beyond the points upon which they are directly received. This is called irradiation; and the impression is diffused farther for white or light-colored than for black or dark objects. It is well known that a white square looks considerably larger than a dark square of exactly the same size; or the hands in white gloves look larger than in black gloves.

I have described, in as simple a way as possible, some wonderful things about the eye ascertained and explained by modern investigations; but there are many interesting facts ascertained which space has not permitted me to discuss, and there still remains much that is not yet understood. The whole question of the appreciation of colors and of color-blindness is still wrapped in mystery. We know that some persons can not distinguish between certain colors, but the reason of this is obscure. Perfect sight can exist only when the eye is perfect. The form and color of objects may be distorted so that an inaccurate image is formed upon the retina, and this image, however imperfect it may be, is what is perceived by the brain. In hearing the case is different. The waves of sound, if they be conducted to the internal ear, and if the nerve of hearing, with its terminations, be normal, can not be modified in course of transmission. Sounds are always appreciated at their exact value, except as regards intensity. Enough has been said about the eye, I think, to show that it is perfectly adapted to all requirements, and whatever defects it may seem to have, viewed as an optical instrument, render it more useful to us than if these apparent defects did not exist.