Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Eye Physiology
Name: Charlotte
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: N/A

I do Physics A level and in my last exam it was really annoying because one of the questions was something that I've always wanted to know but never got around to finding out. You know when you look at a star in the sky or those glowing stars that you stick on your bedroom ceiling? Well, why is it that they don't look as bright when you look directly at them, but do when you look slightly to the side?

_Hello Charlotte

The answer is to do with the biology of the eye. There are two types of receptor cells in the eye and each has strengths and weaknesses:
1. Rod cells - only see black and white but are very sensitive (ie will pick up very small amounts of light)
2. Cone cells - see color but are not as sensitive as rod cells.

At the point in the back of your eye (the retina) where your eye focuses the light when you are looking directly at something there is an area called the fovea. In the fovea the cells are very densely packed so that we can see really well and because color is important to us the cells are predominantly cone cells and only a very few rod cells. The problem with this is that when the light is dim - the cone cells in the fovea are actually really bad at picking up anything at all.

Outside the fovea there are more rod cells. Consequently in low light you are better off not looking directly at an object because then the light will fall on the (predominantly) rod cells outside the fovea rather than the (predominantly) cone cells inside the fovea.

Hope you did OK in your exam anyway.

Cameron Millsom

That's not physics, that's biology. The reason is that when you look at something, its image falls on a region of your retina called the fovea. In the fovea, there are no rod cells, only cones. Cone cells give color recognition and better resolution than rod cells, but they aren't as sensitive to light as the black-and-white only rod cells. When you look slightly to the side, your more sensitive rod cells can detect the starlight, so you can see it better.

Richard E. Barrans Jr., Ph.D.

Your retina has two types of sensory receptors: rods and cones. The cones are for color vision and operate best during the day when light is shining. They are located in the middle of your retina because most of what you need to see is directly in front of you. At night, the rods allow you to see in the dark, or to see shades of gray and black. They are located at the periphery of your retina. At night, when you try to see something in the dark, if you look directly at it, the cones are not stimulated in the dark. If you look to the side, or in your peripheral vision, the rods are stimulated and you can see the object more clearly.

Van Hoeck

Click here to return to the Biology Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory