Sunday, November 22, 2009


Yeah, unfortunately we did get some crappy news, today. Kate's last entry spelled it out, so I won't repeat it. And she did a good job of spinning it into something positive. In lieu of repeating her, I'm just going to write on an entirely unrelated topic, as if today didn't happen.

Color vision. To me it's astounding. You can explain the process of seeing in color scientifically, but that doesn't come close to encapsulating the experience of color. We all know that color is simply how our brain interprets light of varying wavelengths inside the visible spectrum (our visible spectrum, that is...many other animals can see beyond our range.) But that's just how our brain renders visual information. There's another component that comes from within and piggybacks on our visual experience. It's a strong emotional component that has very little to do with the science of color and everything to do with our humanity.

Your eyes orient themselves at the sky and capture light in wavelengths around 475 nanometers. That information is passed down the optic nerve to your brain's vision center where the data is crunched, filtered and then rendered as a sky colored blue. But then you experience the sky. Even though you've already gone through the entire process of rendering an image you don't experience that image until the end. And that experience is entirely separate from the creation process. It's sort of like watching a movie. A lot goes into creating a film from concept to projection, but none of that is evident or important when experiencing the movie. The viewing of the movie is distinct from the creation of the movie.

My point is that the magic of color doesn't lie in the process of capturing and rendering our internal world "movie". The magic is in how that movie affects us. From that perspective color is an entirely inexplicable experience. Without invoking the electromagnetic spectrum, wavelengths, or any other of colors technical aspects, try and explain what color is. You can't, can you? I can't either, I think because the experience of color defies description. Describe the difference between blue and yellow. Describe the deep, almost iridescent shade of green found in gardens across the planet. I mean, you can do it, but the attempt will almost surely involve self-referential vagaries and calls to objects that happen to give off the color in question. Describing color without directly referring to that color is very difficult. In other words, you could describe orange as, "yellow with a little red thrown in", which it is, but what does that tell you? Now you have to describe yellow and red. You could describe each of those by referring to canaries and cherries respectively, but if your listener has never seen those objects, you've again said nothing.

Try explaining the experience of color to a blind person.

That's what I love about color. It exists and it doesn't. The wavelengths of light we see exist apart from us, but the color the create in our brains do not. Our brains create blue, not the other way around. The science of color has nothing to do with the experience of color, and vice versa. Your experience of blue, while potentially vastly different than mine, can never change the wavelength of the light you're perceiving. Your and my perception of blue might be very different, but light vibrating at 475 nm will always exist as it does.

It's about as close to magic as you can get.

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