The Reality Bubble author Ziya Tong links limits of human perception to a modern-day extinction crisis
Science journalist and author Ziya Tong clearly recognizes that human beings are an incredibly intelligent species. But because of the way we’re built biologically, we have some fundamental blind spots that leave us vulnerable. Human beings can’t see like birds, can’t smell like dogs, and can’t match a bat’s ability to sense sound vibrations.
The former long-time host of the Daily Planet TV program decided to explore the consequences of human beings’ natural limitations in her first book, The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths, and the Dangerous Illusions That Shape Our World, which was published earlier this year.
“One of the things I noticed is scientists are able to see things that are invisible to the naked eye—that the average human being can’t see,” the Vancouver-raised Tong explains over the phone from her home in Toronto. “Whether it’s imagining black holes or whether it’s…atomic structures, they see a world that most of us are not privy to.”
The book opens with Buckminster Fuller’s quote that “humans have learned that what they can touch, smell, see, and hear is less than one-millionth of reality.” Over the years, she’s interviewed scientists from a variety of fields with different windows into the truth.
“They’re all seeing it slightly different,” Tong notes. “It’s almost like a pixilated world-view. So I wanted to put some of these images together to form a bigger picture.”
The UBC and McGill grad believes that a person’s perspective can really change once they realize there’s a great deal out there that cannot be observed by the naked eye.
“To see the world clearly, we must first become aware of the veil; we must recognize our blind spots,” Tong advises readers in the book. “The way we’ve come to perceive reality is so deeply ingrained, so socially and intergenerationally enrooted, that we’ve lost sight of the manner in which we think. This is important, because what we think creates reality.
“Clock time, with the five-day workweek and the nine to five of the ‘real’ world, exists not because of some cosmic temporal order but because we invented it, we maintain it, and it’s become the reality we adhere to,” she continues in the book. “Inheriting a reality makes it that much harder to see it for what it is.”
Canadian author Naomi Klein has described The Reality Bubble as "a kaleidoscopic guide to everything we're missing".
There’s a reason why Tong focused so much attention in her book on the father of modern science, Galileo Galilei, and the father of microscopy, Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.
It’s not only because they exposed previously unknown realities: the very nature of the solar system and the existence of microbes.
“The other reason I picked them is because they’re badass rebels,” Tong declares.
They weren’t afraid to tell people what they could clearly observe. And they didn’t hesitate to challenge others over their denials of realities they had uncovered.
Galileo was viciously persecuted by the Catholic Church and van Leeuwenhoek was called a charlatan. In this regard, Tong sees parallels between these two scientific trailblazers and Greta Thunberg, the blunt-speaking teenage climate activist from Sweden.
“I found them to be inspiring figures, a lot like Greta,” she says.
Even though The Reality Bubble is not a book about the environment—it’s more about the history of science and the rise of machine learning—it’s hard not to look upon it as a warning to those denying the existence of a potential planetary apocalypse.
Take species extinction, for example. Tong is vice-chair of the World Wildlife Fund, which has reported that almost 67 percent of vertebrate species that existed in 1970 will have vanished by 2020.
“That’s staggering,” she says. “It’s more than half of vertebrate wildlife in my lifetime.”
Tong acknowledges that many people remain unaware of the extent of this annihilation of animals because they don’t see it. She also says she understands why people choose to look away from catastrophes when they’re trying to survive the rat race of daily living.
“But at the end of the day, there is a bigger-picture version of self-preservation that we all have to get onboard with,” Tong emphasizes.
For that reason, she’s an unabashed supporter of Extinction Rebellion, which engages in peaceful civil disobedience in several countries to raise the alarm about the climate crisis.
One of her greatest inspirations has been primatologist Jane Goodall, who sent a postcard to her as a young woman, encouraging her to pursue her dreams.
“It’s really been a very beautiful full-circle moment to be able to follow in her footsteps and continue championing her work for the world,” Tong says. “I believe also when you fall in love with the world, you’ll fight to protect it.”