Color is to the eye what birdsong is to the ear: a primordial communion between ourselves and nature. The elemental power of color radiates from van Gogh’s glistening wheat fields; in the celestial photographs of the Hubble Space Telescope; and in the Technicolor fantasy landscape that erupts onscreen in “The Wizard of Oz”. Colorful memories linger in my brain: the orange-red of a lunar eclipse; the electric pink of cotton candy; the sky blue of the Venus Paradise # 27 pencil. As I write, a window prism projects a joyful rainbow stripe that drifts with the hours onto my ceiling.
The perception of colors and the pleasure we derive from them are part of our evolutionary heritage. The human retina is sensitive to wavelengths of light of around 400 to 700 nanometers. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.) This spectrum on my ceiling is deconstructed sunlight, with purple at the end of the short wavelength, red at the end of the long wavelength. and other visual colors placed in between.
By Adam Rogers
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 312 pages, $ 28
The retina not only sets the limits of the sensitivity of the eye, it allows us to distinguish one wavelength of light from another. The pigment-containing cells, the “cones” that line the retina, are stimulated by short-wavelength (blue), medium-wavelength (green), or long-wavelength (red) light. The relative intensities of light shining on this trio of receptors trigger electrical impulses in the nervous system that the brain merges into a particular color. This remarkable sight device has been in the development of our species from the beginning, making color and its perception fertile ground for examination. (Trichromatism is absent in people with red-green color blindness, who are born with two functional color receptors instead of three.)
Adam Rogers has spent several years questioning the multiple aspects of color and its consequent relationship to human affairs. His book, “Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made us Modern,” is an informative and entertaining account of his findings. Associate Editor of Wired and author of Proof: The Science of Booze, Mr. Rogers is a seasoned storyteller, skillfully unfolding a story that spans an eternity, mixing educational material, expert interviews and fantasy. His idiosyncratic take on the subject of color gamut broadly covers the history of art, geochemistry, physics, neuroscience, and global commerce.
A review can only pick up a few of these threads, but its most compelling stories are about the long-standing divide between the multicolored world we experience and its true artistic portrayal. Until recent decades, there were too few natural or synthetic pigments to faithfully and sustainably render what we see with our own eyes. For example, some shades of blue and red are difficult to achieve; the most recent blue was developed in 2009, two centuries after the previous discovery of blue pigment. This aesthetic imperative, says Rogers, has been a major catalyst for centuries of technological innovation, manufacturing and commerce.
The book opens with a chapter on earth tones – reds, yellows, oranges and browns – which, along with the white of chalk or calcium carbonate and the black of charcoal or manganese dioxide, formed the palette of muted colors of prehistoric times. We venture into Blombos Cave, along the South African coast, which was first occupied at least 100,000 years ago and, according to Mr. Rogers, is “the oldest manufacturing workshop in painting never discovered ”. Here and at other Stone Age sites, our ancestors converted handy natural materials into pigments for body ornamentation and rock art. These prehistoric artisans were no chemists, but they nevertheless used the available resources with considerable skill; indeed, suggests Mr. Rogers, they could have complemented the earth tones with “delicate blues made from flower petals, greens of crushed grass, grays of river mud” – all since erased by time. .
Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century, describes “flowery” pigments, such as vermilion, Armenian blue, dragon’s blood red and Tyrian purple derived from sea snails. The sublime frescoes of Pompeii, although faded over time, testify to the role of color as a visual emblem of wealth and status in the ancient Roman world. The supply of raw materials for the decorative arts became an important driver of international trade and imperial conquest: Rome established distant mining operations to satisfy its demand for pigments.
In a long chapter on the production and coloring of ancient ceramics, we are introduced to the euphonically named treasure hunter Tilman Walterfang, who in 1998 recovered more than 60,000 pieces of ancient Chinese pottery from a ship sunk in the waters of the off Borneo. Expert analysis has traced these porcelain fragments to the innovative high-temperature kilns of the Tang Dynasty. In the 8th century, Chinese pottery was a sought-after commodity, prized for its strength, delicacy of form and the exquisite whiteness of its kaolin clay. The Chinese ceramics trade was so vigorous that a historian suggested that the Silk Road might well be called the Ceramics Road.
The Middle Ages saw a further expansion of the colors available for artistic and decorative works. A manual from the 1390s contained recipes for five different pigments of red, six of yellow, seven of green, and a variety of blacks and whites. Another medieval writer described pigments with which to dye horses to increase their value. In the 15th century, painters began mixing pigments with linseed oils or other oils, resulting in glossier and more multitextured surfaces than the egg tempera works of their predecessors.
Scientific research into the nature of light and color during this period, notably that of Isaac Newton in the 1660s and Thomas Young in the early 1800s, was accompanied by an increase in the use of color in the arts, textiles and cosmetics. Through chemistry and random, albeit deliberate, mixing, the 1800s proved to be a landmark century for the development of new pigments, such as cadmium yellow, arsenic green, and the first synthetic organic dye, purple.
Much of “Full Spectrum” describes the technological and commercial history of the most ubiquitous color: white. Whatever color “white” conjures up in your mind, it is just one of a multitude made today, with names like Navajo White, Chantilly Lace and Bavarian Cream. Prehistoric whites were obtained primarily by mixing water with ground limestone, chalk or seashells. Their successor, lead white – made by soaking metallic lead in vinegar – has been found in the ruins of the oldest civilizations in the Middle East and referenced on clay tablets dating from the 7th century BC. its deleterious effects on health were known. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century, the United States was producing 70,000 tonnes of this substance each year, much of which was smeared on homes. Non-toxic alternatives, such as calcium carbonate (chalk) and zinc white, were not as durable and were more expensive. Mr. Rogers gives a vivid account of the discovery, production and commercialization of titanium dioxide, the predominant bleaching agent in modern paints, paper, pottery, pills and sunscreens. The pursuit of white is a lucrative business, he adds, with titanium white pigment accounting for $ 18 billion in global sales each year.
The remainder of “Full Spectrum” covers a variety of color-related topics, many of which are associated with innovations such as nanoscale manufacturing, high-definition television, and computer-generated imaging. There are delicious essays on the dialect of color (why do Homer’s epics call the sea “wine-dark”?); the outcry within the arts community over Vantablack, a proprietary carbon-based substance believed to be the blackest synthetic material ever made; and “The Dress,” the 2015 viral internet image that some viewers saw as black and blue and others as white and gold – this “memetic frenzy,” Rogers writes, has shaken people up. established ideas about color perception.
Mr. Rogers is clearly captivated by his own subject matter, which leads to the highly publicized book’s subtitle, as well as several reductionist claims, such as “Without color creation technology, we might not have modern climate control. “. The unity of the narrative is challenged by frequent jumps in time and space: in one case we go from house painting in “Moby-Dick” to Greenland ice cores to the dangers of lead exposure, all over six pages. Readers should be careful lest they sink into a sea of names and ideas.
But it may be inevitable when the author sets out to communicate how color has permeated human language, culture and commerce. Whether you are feeling blue, pink or green with envy, Mr. Rogers brings to light the meaning of color in our lives.
-Mr. Hirshfeld, professor of physics at UMass Dartmouth, is the author of “Starlight Detectives: How Astronomers, Inventors, and Eccentrics Discovered the Modern Universe”.
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