Four eyes, four eyes!

English: Eye with a contact lens (myopia).

English: Eye with a contact lens (myopia). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Schoolchildren can sniff out weakness at 20 paces. It doesn’t matter whether you have crooked teeth, ginger hair or a slightly rotund midriff. Once they smell blood, they go in for the kill. Call it taking the Michael or extracting the urine, such teasing to a small child can be mortally wounding. Of course, once you’re older, such behaviour doesn’t tend to wound so much.

I wore spectacles from an early age. Because my prescription changed every 6 months, it made no sense to spend a huge amount on any eye correction I wore, so I suffered the ignominy of National Health glasses. These were spectacles provided by the state for those who couldn’t afford to pay for fashionable eye correction.

By necessity, they were cheap. There was only one design which came in chunky plastic. You could choose between brown, black and a kind of tortoiseshell colour. In the rough and tumble of childhood play, broken glasses became a fact of life. Mum or Dad would carry out makeshift repairs using sellotape or superglue. When I started wearing them, the lenses were like milk bottles, fashioned from thick, heavy glass.

Thank goodness, over time the manufacturers turned to plastic which cut down the weight significantly. In addition, they worked out how to make the lenses much thinner. The bridge of my nose was grateful for both developments.

Several people (including Da Vinci and Descartes) dreamed up concepts for contact lenses, but it was 1949 before someone came up with a design that was bearable for any period of time. The original lenses did not allow oxygen through to the eye which led to all sorts of nasty side effects. Over the coming decades, more sophisticated, comfortable and safer designs were developed.

As soon as I started work, I sought freedom from the spectacles I’d been shackled to. I happily wore contact lenses for a number of years, before my laziness overcame my vanity. I don’t miss all the faffing around. I do miss the ability to see in the rain or to have a clear view when coming in from the cold.

So every 2-3 years, I spend the equivalent to a top of the range iPad on new spectacles. If only on economic grounds, if I was brave enough, I should invest in laser eye surgery. Developed in the 80’s from IBM technology, it was Dr Stephen Trokel who pioneered and applied the excimer laser in a ground-breaking procedure. The idea of burning away bits of my eye to sculpt the perfect lens sounds like it would be difficult to fix if they got it wrong.

One day, a quick injection of stem cells or the insertion of some nano-technology that adapts to your exact correction requirements will be safe, pain and error free. Call me a coward, but I think I’ll wait.



Through the looking glass

The image of Seattle being refracted through m...

The image of Seattle being refracted through myopic glasses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some inventions are so mundane that we barely give them a second thought. They just do their job well and everyone takes them for granted. There is one such invention that I rely on every day of my conscious life. Like the majority of the population, I wear spectacles. Without them – I’m lost. I can fumble my way around, especially if I’m familiar with the terrain, but ask me to read anything and I’m sunk.

Nowadays of course, the lenses are fashioned from lightweight plastic, but it wasn’t always the case. When I started wearing glasses at the tender age of 2, they really were made of glass. In those days, optical technology was nowhere near so advanced, so the lenses were thick and heavy. No matter, I have always been grateful for the invention of glass.

Without glass, homes would have no windows and be very draughty and cold. There would be no TVs if there were no screens. Nor would there be any tablets, mobile phones or laptops. There would be limits on how fast cars without windscreens could comfortably travel. Aeroplanes would not be able to fly so high or so fast and there would be no such thing as a skyscraper.

Thanks to volcanic activity, glass occurs naturally but not in a particularly workable form. Stone age man managed to use bits of glass as cutting tools, but that was about as far as it went. Man made glass was in full swing in the late Bronze Age, but commonly only used for beads or drinking vessels. It wasn’t until medieval times that man started to make glass window panes.

The building of Crystal Palace by Joseph Paxton for the great exhibition of 1850 in London marked the first real use of glass as a fundamental construction material. During the industrial revolution, glass manufacture became increasingly mechanised and refined and the material became ubiquitous.

Optic fibres have been spun since Roman times, but it was only in the late 18th century that the Chappe Brothers from France invented an optical telegraph system. Others experimented with the optical fibres using them for everything from illuminating body cavities to central lighting for the home. Fast forward to today and fibre optic cable forms the very bedrock of the World Wide Web.

Scientists in Turkey have even invented a form of spray on glass although the invention has been taken to market by a German company. It is a form of silicone dioxide which can create a flexible and even breathable layer. The substance, when applied, is 500 times thinner than a human hair. It is environmentally friendly, food safe and is quickly finding applications in just about every field of human endeavour.

So the next time you look at a screen, a skyscraper or drive your car or take a flight – be thankful for the material that makes it all possible.