My Fascination With Colour

Take a look around you. Go on, take a look. Try and describe the scene using only colour.

Ok, I’ll go first. My computer screen is mainly white, grey and blue (that from facebook open in the background). Around me are walls painted entirely in white, with a green fire exit sign and a plug socket with the red lines indicating the sockets are on with black plugs plugged into them. There are signs around me, in different colours, designed to grab your attention, and possibly more so, keep it.

Try and think about what the colours are doing. If we want to highlight something, we usually make it a different colour. Was that the first sentence you read of this blog? Don’t be ashamed if it was. It’s natural for our eyes to glance over black text and jump straight to the coloured stuff.

A scientist, and although I am trained in the art I am not one, will tell you that black is the absence of colour. Although that’s kind of obvious. Turn off all the lights in your room. It’s dark now, yes, but it’s also black.

Why? Because colour is light. It all comes down to the electromagnetic spectrum. Radiowaves, microwaves, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, x-rays, gamma rays. That might ring a bell from school days, don’t worry if it doesn’t – it’s no big deal! There’s so much I could say about this spectrum, but I’ll limit it to this.

Before we delve, there’s a debate that rages in journalism. Science reports are permanently “dumbed” down to allow “common” folk to understand them better. The problem with doing that is you remove key principles from it and thus, at worst, it actually stops making sense and at best it is unbelievably simplified that it barely resembles science anymore.

The problem is, science is so hard to explain to people who don’t have a basic knowledge and, on this blog at least; I have to assume that no one has a basic knowledge of it. Furthermore, what even is basic knowledge to me? Basic knowledge of science, at least in my opinion, is everything that I’ve remembered from my degree. And I suppose that’s not really classed as basic.

So, how do I proceed with this? I want to talk about my fascination with colour, and inevitably, as we’ve already seen, that’ll involve dipping in science. While I was spending three years of my life wishing I wasn’t at university studying physics, there were parts that I was enjoying. And colour was definitely one of them.

Light. Look up, it’s part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It’s the part of the spectrum human eyes can see. The spectrum is split into sections dependant on the wavelength of the radiation. Light wavelengths vary from 400 – 700 nanometres (for the record, a nanometre is one billionth of a metre – teeney weeney). My favourite part of science was that other creatures see different wavelengths to us. Bees, for example, only see the wavelengths we call ultraviolet. So, by that logic, colour is already a human thing, that admittedly we do share.

And furthermore, due to the sensitivity of our photoreceptors in eyes, we all see slightly different shades to the next person, sometimes, in the case of the 8% of humans who are colour blind, completely different colours. Which doesn’t only make colour a human thing, but a very personal thing. Emma will talk more about that later this week.

Humans have associated colour with senses and emotions. Blue is seen as calm, red as danger etc. Red is also associated with heat, and blue with cool. But this is completely wrong. In physics, red is cooler than blue. Stars for example, the hot ones are blue, the cooler ones red. Think about a light bulb turning off, it goes red as it cools.

Colour has a funny effect on people. Some people refuse to wear certain colours, usually claiming it doesn’t go with their eyes. It’s ridiculous when you consider it; colour is how you perceive it, which should be your excuse for not wearing that red top, not anything to do with you having blue eyes! Colour can start fights, but it can also unite people. It’s all around us and we spend most of our life not truly appreciating it.

And so I love colour. I always have. Colours mean so much to people, and yet, realistically, are so meaningless. They are just certain wavelengths of white light that has been reflected into our eyes, which, in turn, processes them into an arbitrary “colour” which might not even be the same as the person next to us. And I think, in essence, we can find out why I did a physics degree with that sentence there.

Science has a way of explaining the world by making it more complicated. I’ve never searched for something in life that I understand (that’s boring), I always crave stuff I will never fully grasp. I will never truly understand the magic of colour, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the beauty.


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