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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have superpowers?

Well, it may surprise you to learn that you already possess some skills—simply because you are human—that come naturally to us as part of our genetics.

Researchers at the University of Stuttgart, Germany have discovered a unique skill possessed by most humans. According to a study, we have the ability to differentiate objects varying in width by only a few nanometers. This difference of thickness is incomprehensibly small; a distance of a few nanometers is as thick as a cell membrane or virus. So if human vision accurately detects differences, why have we not noticed it?

The reality is that most situations don’t require us to detect tiny differences on a daily basis; thus, our adeptness at distinguishing objects goes unnoticed. In fact, to discover this ability, the researchers had to devise a unique setup.

 People were able to tell the different thicknesses of titanium dioxide by looking at the colors  the films produced much like differentiating between two bubbles by color.

Image Source: Eugenio Marongiu

The study consisted of placing extremely thin films, only a few nanometers thick, of titanium dioxide under very precisely controlled lighting. These surfaces, often used in solar panels, display a wide range of colors when light strikes them, similar to colors on soap bubbles. Volunteers looked at these films and accurately estimated their thickness by detecting the subtle differences in color between them. They were able to correctly identify the color of the films, matching the hue perfectly, usually in under two minutes with an error of only 1-3 nanometers. The specific colors depended on the material, its thickness, and the wavelength, frequency, and resulting hue of the incoming light.

The remarkable thing is that some people utilize these skills daily.

Engineers often work with solar panels or other technology using titanium dioxide films. Skilled engineers’ high sensitivity to materials and their thicknesses helps them to quickly estimate the thickness of films down to 10-20 nanometers. They invariably detect the infinitesimally small differences in film thickness and decide which ones to use for the product. This inspired the research team to test limits of our vision’s ability to detect smallest variations under ideal circumstances.

According to Sandy Peterhänsel, the head of this study, the research was an eye-opening experience. “This experiment demonstrates that our natural born vision can achieve exceptional tasks,” he says, “that we normally would only assign to expensive and sophisticated machinery.”

Optimistically, future research will uncover more of the unique gifts humans possess.

Feature Image Source: Different Thicknesses by ccarlstead

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