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I am often fascinated by one of Earth's most magnificent beings, the mantis shrimp (also known as 1-2-3-death). These beautiful animals have sixteen kinds of colour receptive cones - compare to our measly three! They can also see polarized light in ways that we cannot.

Which got me thinking... What if we had eyes more like the ones of those cute creatures, and could see polarized light the way they do?

How differently would we see everyday things? Would magic tricks, specially those based on smoke and mirrors work differently for us? Would we perceive the sky and the stars any differently?

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    $\begingroup$ Have you ever worn polaroid sunglasses? Or looked at an LCD screen? Did you see anything? If so, you can, as all other humans, see polarized light. $\endgroup$ – p.streef Jul 28 '16 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ I guess it would all look a greenish-yellow purple colour. $\endgroup$ – dunc123 Jul 28 '16 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ Humans can perceive polarization of light at a limited degree. See Wikipedia $\endgroup$ – lokimidgard Jul 28 '16 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ I think it's important to point out that Mantis Shrimp can not only see polarized light (just like we can) but can actually tell that it is polarized. Their eyes can detect the actual plane of polarization, giving the shrimp an extra layer of depth to their eyesight (beyond the absurd number of photoreceptors). I think a number of people took "see polarized light" to mean simply seeing the light rather than detecting the polarization. $\endgroup$ – MozerShmozer Jul 28 '16 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ This is in no way opinion based, this is based on actual science. That said there are a lot of questions being asked. Renan, can you narrow your focus a bit? $\endgroup$ – James Jul 28 '16 at 17:53
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What would the world look like if we could detect the polarization of light?

For one, we might be better at navigation:

Polarized light is produced a variety of ways in nature. The atmosphere and water both refract un-polarized sunlight, producing a polarized light pattern. This creates a striking pattern in the sky that many animals use as a navigational compass.

As far as how we would interpret colors and such if we could see polarized light, you need to understand that polarization is different than other colors. For human color vision, we have cone cells that are particularly stimulated by certain wavelengths of light. For instance, blue-detecting cones are most stimulated by light with a wavelength of around 430 nm. Polarization is basically which direction the light wave is vibrating. This is independent of wavelength - you can have blue light polarized the same as red light, while another source of blue light could be polarized differently than those two.

Given that wavelength and polarization are independent, I think we would interpret it separately. For comparison, think about light blue, light red, dark blue, and dark red. The darkness or lightness of the color is easily separated from the color itself. Polarization would be like that - another aspect of color that we would be able to describe and that can easily be compared across colors.

What magic tricks, etc. would no longer work on us?

This wouldn't prevent any magic tricks from working on us. When was the last time you saw a magician do a trick that was actually obvious because some part of the trick accidentally used two different colors when it should have used one? Being able to perceive polarized light, the magician would make sure that the materials used didn't polarize light in such a way as to give the trick away. It's entirely possible that magicians would have to be more particular about lighting and materials used, but that's not a significant change from what they do now.

What would no longer be hidden from us?

Some animals use polarized light as part of their mating routines, so we would be able to see them wooing each other.

What would be obfuscated?

Nothing natural. You'd have to design something that rapidly changed the polarization of light it reflects/emits to produce a strobe-like effect. As I said earlier, polarization would be categorized differently than color, so it would not make it harder for us to perceive anything that we can currently perceive.

How would we perceive the sky and the stars?

As I quoted earlier, the atmosphere polarizes light from the sun, so we'd be able to see patterns in the sky that could help us navigate. Stars produce unpolarized light, so they'd look the same other than how the sky polarizes light.

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We do not know

The entire point of these extra cones is that they can see colors we cannot. Colors we cannot see, we cannot conceive. What you are basically asking is for us to imagine something we cannot imagine.

I, or rather no one, can tell what illusion would or wouldn't work, because we cannot even conceive what these other colors look like.

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    $\begingroup$ well, if an extra cone could allow us to see Infared, we already know what new things we would see, because we have IR cameras. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Jul 28 '16 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ "Imagine a color you can't even imagine. Now do that nine more times. That is how a Mantis Shrimp do." youtube.com/watch?v=F5FEj9U-CJM $\endgroup$ – ApproachingDarknessFish Jul 28 '16 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ @ApproachingDarknessFish god help me I miss Zefrank $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Jul 28 '16 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ @TrEs-2b we know what patterns and distinctions we would see. It doesn't matter that we don't know what the color itself would actually look like. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Jul 28 '16 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ Here is how you might see colours you have never seen before. Sit in a dim room and stare at a bicycle red LED rear light. Then look away at a woodland scene on a monitor. Wow! What has happened is that the bright red light reduces the sensitivity of your eyes to red, meaning you then get green/blue simulation with respect to red at a level you may never have experienced. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Jul 28 '16 at 18:30
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With many more than three colour receptors, our colour TVs, using just three colours for display, would not come even close to showing all the colours of the world. Moreover, LDCs inherently work with polarized light; as is, they would probably look very unnatural. However, in principle this could be solved with a second LCD layer on the pixels; this would, however, make the displays twice as expensive, even before considering the extra colours.

It's not clear if we would really see more colours, as the additional dimensions in colour space might well be offset by a lower colour resolution, so while while we would see different colours for wildly different spectra that in our reality look exactly the same, similar spectra that already show different colours to us in the real world might in that hypothetical world look the same.

For a rough analogy (not to be taken too literally), consider a display with only two colour channels (say, red and blue) and three bits per channel, versus an ordinary three-channel display with two bits per channel. Both would have 6 bits available, therefore they both could display 64 different colours. The two-colour display could display more colour tones in the magenta segment (as the mixture of red and blue could be finer tuned), but in return could not display green at all.

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