Girl, 12, Wins $25,000 Prize For Life-Changing Optical Illusion Machine

by : Cameron Frew on : 15 Nov 2020 12:03
Ishana Kumar ScienceSociety for Science

A 12-year-old girl from New York won $25,000 for an optical illusion that could help pioneer better understanding of the human eye. 

In October, the Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering as Rising Stars) and Society for Science and the Public revealed its 30 finalists for the 2020 Samueli Foundation Prize.


While science projects at such a young age inspire images of small-scale, relatively insignificant creations, Ishana Kumar’s study could pave the way for progress on cognitive processing.

The student, coming from Chappaqua’s Robert E. Bell Middle School, created ‘Colour Is in the Eye of the Beholder: The Role of Retinal Fatigue on Imaginary Fechner Colours’.

The project utilises a familiar optical illusion to assess whether our brains can be tricked into perceiving imaginary colours. By using Benham’s top, a spinning disc of black and white stimuli, we can somehow dupe ourselves into seeing colours which aren’t actually real.

Ishana Kumar Science 2Society for Science

Kumar explained the process to NPR:

Let’s say I’m looking at a bright red object. I stare at it for a very, very long time. And then I look at a white sheet of paper. I’ll actually see the shape of the red object but it won’t be red. It will be green. And the reason this happens is because certain cells in our eyes called cones, the red cones, they detect or sort of perceive the colour red.

They trigger and trigger and trigger when looking at this red object. But they get so tired that the green cones, which sort of detect green, temporarily take over. And I wanted to see, if I could temporarily saturate someone’s eyes, would this change our perception of imaginary colours.

She also told Westchester Magazine: ‘I have always been fascinated about how our complicated brains can be tricked by illusions. I find it fascinating that illusions, as simple as spinning black and white patterns, can trick our complicated brain. The fact that we know that something isn’t real, yet we still perceive it, is really intriguing.’

Ishana Kumar Science 3Society for Science

Kumar took home the top prize, an impressive $25,000. However, the other finalists didn’t go home empty-handed.

Julian Olschwang, 14, won $10,000 for his ‘low-cost glove that could convert sign language to text or speech’. Kai Vernooy, 14, ‘studied gerrymandering and used a mathematical algorithm to draw voting districts that are more fair’.

Zoe Weissman, 14, looked at alternative solutions for pain medicines, and Charlotte Lenore Simon Michaluk, 14, crafted a new silicone coating for cargo ship hulls using a blend of PDMS and 3D models mimicking shark teeth.


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Cameron Frew

After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BJTC-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He's now left his Scottish homelands and taken up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.

Topics: Science, New York


NPR and 1 other
  1. NPR

    Ishana Kumar, 12, Wins Top Award For Research Into 'Imaginary Colors'

  2. Westchester Magazine

    This Westchester Middle Schooler Won a $25,000 Science Fair Prize