Favorite illusions: Halloween surprises

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Trick or treat! It’s Halloween. In a way, the holiday never ends. Make-believe will remain after all the shaving cream is cleaned up. Ding-dong! It’s a world of illusion.

Okay, fine – as long as we know the rules. We’ll confidently go 73 on the Thruway because we know that’s the real speed limit. We can adapt; no problem. We happily accept that margarine is now bad instead of good, and that being a bit overweight is now good instead of bad. Illusions can be illustrative. And they’re everywhere:

We look around and nothing seems to be moving. In truth, everything is moving. In the mid-Hudson Valley, Earth’s rotation carries each tree and building along at 770 miles per hour: very nearly the speed of sound. The stones at our feet all vibrate trillions of times a second.


The returning Moon seems brilliant. In reality it has exactly the same brightness as a sunlit parking lot. It seems bright only because the background sky is even darker, and our eyes make the adjustment.

Major meteors look like substantive whizzing balls. But the largest one you’ve ever seen is no bigger than a raisin.

Modern appliances seem like technological wizardry. Reality: Every electrical gadget with moving parts (fans, power windows in cars, refrigerators, hairdryers) operates the same simple way: an electromagnet twirls inside a permanent magnet.

Cosmologists act as if they’re closing in on the origins and fate of the universe. They make it seem that enlightenment is just around the corner. Reality: They haven’t a clue.

Global warming is not good, but it won’t be bad for everyone. Nobody knows precisely which regions will benefit and which will be harmed. So far (according to computer simulations that I was privately shown at the Boulder NOAA climate center a couple of years ago), our region looks like one of the winners. Don’t move.

For decades, avoiding the sun was a “given” if you worried about cancer. The latest medical about-face: Sunlight-derived vitamin D appears to be the strongest general anti-cancer agent ever discovered. It’s much better to get too much sun than too little. Sunscreen shouldn’t be used except to prevent a burn.

If you’re a white male in your mid-50s, the odds are better than one in 180 that you’ll die in the next year. Abandon the notion that you’re “entitled” to 75 or 80 years.

The Sun, Moon and stars cross the sky from left to right, east to west. The Greeks figured out around 600 BC that this means that Earth is whirling the opposite way.

When you press your hand against something, it’s not solid particles that you encounter. The resistance you feel is purely an electrical force – nothing solid at all.

You’ll probably never die in an accident. The odds are 25 times greater that some health issue will do you in.

Black and white are relative to the ambient lighting. A black cat in sunlight is actually 2,000 times whiter and brighter than snow lit up by a Full Moon. So which was really black? Neither, but if they were viewed side-by-side, it would be the snow, hands down.

Black holes aren’t holes. They’re the densest things in the universe: the very opposite of holes or emptiness.

The Moon has no influence or correlation with human births.

The true color of the sky is violet. But our eyes are so much more sensitive to the blue that is also present, the violet is overwhelmed. Some birds and insects perceive the sky’s true color, but not us.

Steam isn’t white. The clear gap next to the kettle’s spout is the steam. The white mist is tiny liquid droplets condensing.

Manufacturers like to package things in red. But surveys consistently show most people’s favorite color to be some shade of blue.

The Moon looks much bigger when it’s low. But it actually measures out a bit smaller then, because it’s farther from you. As it rises, the spinning Earth is carrying your location closer to the moon by about two percent, so it grows that much larger as it gets higher in the sky.

There are countless others, of course. But one illusion that I can’t ignore is imagining that I can just go on and on.


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