Well, here I am back in the office again. The conference was great - but it was on assessment in the tertiary education system: not something you want to hear about here :-)
But during a break in the proceedings I slipped out & investigated the Lambton Quay bookshops... (Dangerous things, bookshops; I could easily put down roots in a good one!) And among other things, I came away with Simon Ings' wonderful book, The Eye: a natural history.
I bought the book because this is what I read when I turned to the prologue:
Natalie, my daughter, began life with one eye orbit placed centrally in her forehead. It appeared early - barely a week after her conception - in October 2002 and had things gone awry, there it would have remained, a wet cyclopean hollow, glowering in the shadow of a grotesque proboscis that would have grown in place of her nose.
This immediately reminded me of another book in my collection: Armand Marie Leroi's excellent Mutants: on the form, varieties, and errors of the human body. (This is also the subject of a BBC series; unfortunately it's never screened in New Zealand - I suppose TVNZ might be worried about viewers' sensibilities as some of the images in the book are grotesque, to put it mildly.) Leroi also talks about cyclops babies - those where a major and early disruption of development leaves them with the features that Ings so graphically describes. And a whole lot of other stuff besides, from the perspective of what these disorders tell us about the genes that influence development.
Anyway, as you can tell, I was hooked. Haven't finished reading The Eye yet (it's only a short flight from Wellington to Hamilton) but so far I've found out about some neat work in the US that's taught blind people to see with their chests. I'm not making this up! Paul Bach-y Rita's 'eyes' strap onto the wearer's chest (or back). Each 'vest' contains 256 mechanical 'tactors' that touch the wearer in a particular pattern when activated by a small computer worn on a belt. That computer receives low-res pixellated images from a small video camera mounted on a pair of glasses, and each of those tactors corresponds to a pixel. The wearers very quickly learn to navigate around obstacles on the basis of the mental images they develop, & apparently over time can come to recognise faces. Not only is this an amazing technical feat - it also demonstrates the considerable plasticity of our nervous system. Wonderful stuff! (Does the star-nosed mole see the world in the same way?)
S. Ings (2007) The Eye: a natural history. Bloomsbury.
A. M. Leroi (2005) Mutants: on the form, varieties, and errors of the human body. Harper Perennial.