Alan Kirker


January 28th, 2022 by

In his book, “Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern” (2021), author Adam Rogers looks to pioneering eighteenth century scientist Thomas Young who first began studying waves of sound in liquids and smoke, “then realized that waves could also account for the shimmering, coloured fringes that Newton had seen in the edges of a lens pressed against a glass, and in the iridescence of soap bubbles or oil on water” (p. 79). In “Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing” (1966), psychologist Richard Gregory has the author of electromagnetism’s elegant equations, mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, describing another of Young’s insights; “that colour is a sensation”:

It seems almost a truism to say that colour is a sensation; and yet Young, by honestly recognizing this elementary truth, established the first consistent theory of colour. So far as I know, Thomas Young was the first who, starting from the well-known fact that there are three primary colours, sought for the explanation of this fact, not in the nature of light, but in the constitution of man” (1966, p. 120).

Philosophers Arthur J. Minton and Thomas Shipka suggest further:

The colors of the peacock and the blazing reds of the setting sun are but subjective qualities produced in the perceiver by a special nervous system that responds selectively to lightwaves (themselves colorless) of varying frequencies. The real world, the world as described by physics, is a colorless, soundless, odorless matter” (1990, p. 129).

Statistician and professor Edward R. Tufte states that the colours of nature present opportune reference sources for background colours of information graphics, in his annotated and illustrated “Envisioning Information” (1990):

What palette of colors should we choose to represent and illuminate information. A grand strategy is to use colors found in nature, especially blues, yellows and grays of sky and shadow. Nature’s colors are familiar and coherent, possessing a widely accepted harmony to the human eye – and their source has a definitive authority. A palate of nature’s colors helps suppress production of garish and content-empty colorjunk” (p. 90).

Tufte uses this premise to highlight the notion of colour salience. “Local emphasis for data is then given by means of spot highlights of strong color woven through the serene background” (p. 90). Rogers elaborates, declaring people’s brains;

“are tuned to talk about and understand not the vast, overwhelming Rayleigh-scattered blue of sky or the roiling wine-dark sea, not the green of a forest, but the rainbow of bright, hot spikes that stand out from it all. That is what our minds care about… Greens and blues are typically things we don’t want to label. These are not ‘objects’… Warm things are the humans and other animals, the berries and the fruits, flowers and stuff” (2021, p. 158).

Rogers looks at current research on colour perception in the context of ultra high definition screen technology, and confirms Maxwell and Young’s truism that indeed “colour is a sensation” revealed in the work of neuroscientist Poppy Crum:

The phantom sensation of heat she was experiencing as a function of luminance alone would have to have a physical analog. “I realized we could track regions on people’s cheeks in response to the flame.. a screen could make people feel things as though they were real, with physiological responses” (2021, p. 209).

Gregory, R. L. (1966) Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing. World University Library, Third Edition (1977), Toronto, Canada: McGraw-Hill Book Company

Minton, A. J. & Shipka, T. A. (Eds.), (1990), Part 2, Knowledge: The Paradox of Appearances, in Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery, Third Edition, (pp. 129 – 130). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill

Rogers, A. (2021) Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern. New York, United States: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

Tufte, E. R. (1990) Envisioning Information. Cheshire, United States: Graphics Press LLC


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