The Conscience of Color, from Chemistry to Culture – Brain Pickings

by Jeremy

The deep blue water of the open sea far from land is the color of emptiness and barrenness; the green water of the coastal areas, with all its varying hues, is the color of life,” Rachel Carson wrote as she illuminated the science and splendor of the marine spectrum, enriching the literary canon of history’s most beautiful meditations on the color blue.

The Conscience of Color, from Chemistry to Culture – Brain Pickings

The color of life, the actual chromatic hue that makes our rocky planet a living world, is somewhere between the blue of the water and the green of land — when Carl Sagan looked at the grainy Voyager photograph of Earth seen from the far reaches of the Solar System for the very first time, he famously eulogized our Pale Blue Dot. But the color of that dot “suspended in a sunbeam” is somewhat between blue and green: a pixel of turquoise.

That color — its chromatic science and its cultural symbology — is what Ellen Meloy (June 21, 1946–November 4, 2004) explores in The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky (public library).

goethe colorwheel 1

Two centuries after Goethe wrote in his poetically beguiling, philosophically promising, but scientifically incorrect theory of color and emotion that “colors are the deeds and sufferings of light” and two generations after Frida Kahlo considered the meaning of the colors, Meloy bridges the metaphysical and the scientific across the undercurrent of the poetic:

Colors are not possessions; they are the intimate revelations of an energy field… They are light waves with mathematically precise lengths and deep, resonant mysteries with boundless subjectivity.

There is no more fertile a region of subjectivity than language — the human effort to contain the uncontainable, the fluid, the nuanced into vessels of concept and category. Therefore, the chromatic boundlessness of the spectrum has a peculiar relationship to language, exposing the limitations of our primary sensemaking instrument against the limitless vistas of nature. (That might be why Darwin took with him on The Beagle, a pioneering vocabulary of color, as he set out to classify, categorize, and make sense of the natural world.) In a passage that illustrates just how primordial the link between the body and the mind is, just how inseparable our psychology from our physiology, Meloy writes:

Colors challenge language to encompass them. (It cannot; there are more sensations than words for them. Our eyes are far ahead of our tongues.) Colors bear the metaphors of entire cultures. They convey every feeling, from lust to distress. They glow fluorescent on the flanks of a fish out of the water, then flee at its death. They mark the land of a woman deity who controls the soft desert rain. Flowers use colors ruthlessly for sex. Moths steal them from their surroundings and disappear. An octopus communicates by color; an octopus blush is a language. Humans imbibe colors as antidotes to emotional monotony. When we pay attention to light, our lives compel us to empathize with color.


The very concept of empathy as we know it was born in the early twentieth century to describe the experience of projecting oneself into a work of art — a projection screened by vision, an instrument millions of years in the making. It may be that empathy and the eye are the twin triumphs of evolution. Meloy traces the interdependent development of the two:

In primitive life forms, the eye began as a light-sensitive depression in the skin; the sense of sight likely evolved from the sense of touch.

The complex human eye harvests light. It perceives seven to ten million colors through a synaptic flash: one-tenth of a second from the retina to the brain. Homo sapiens gangs up 70 percent of its sense receptors solely for vision, to anticipate danger and recognize reward, but also — more so — for beauty. We have eyes refined by the evolution of predation. We use a predator’s eyes to marvel at the work of Titian or the Grand Canyon bathed in the copper light of a summer sunset.

There was biology, and then there was physics: Three centuries after Newton first unwove the rainbow to launch the dawn of optics and the study of light as a stream of particles, quantum mechanics staggered our basic grasp of reality by positing that light — which is how and why we see color — might be both particle and wave. At the heart of this dizzying notion, called complementarity, is the idea that “you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth,” in the words of the Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek.

Sometimes, the truth can be so elemental, that it requires no explicit recognition or echo in language. Goethe attempted to defy Newton while anticipating quantum physics — considered the purest form of blue a transcendent nothingness, “a stimulating negation.” Meloy writes.

Related Posts