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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

Why was color invented by humans?

Category: Physics      Published: March 6, 2014

By: Christopher S. Baird, author of The Top 50 Science Questions with Surprising Answers and Associate Professor of Physics at West Texas A&M University

Color was not invented by humans. Color is a fundamental physical property of light that exists independent of humans. How color is perceived by a certain person is of course human dependent. For example, a standard helium-neon laser always emits a specific red color (scientifically, its color is the color with a wavelength of 632.8 nanometers). Whether a person perceives this color as sharp, dull, alarming, vibrant, evocative, romantic, muddy red, brick red, orange-red, or even yellow (if he is color blind) depends entirely on the human perception. But this does not change the fact that helium-neon lasers emit light with the color 632.8 nm red. A machine can measure the color of helium-neon laser light and will find it to be 632.8 nm red every time, no matter which humans are running the machine. In fact, even a blind person that has never experienced sight can be trained to run a machine that measures the color of helium-neon laser light to be 632.8 nm red. The blind person will not a have a personal conception of what red actually looks like, but he should have no great difficulty measuring and scientifically describing red. The same is true of all colors and not just 632.8 nm red. The blind person's experience is similar to that of a human with sight looking at an infrared color. None of us can see an infrared color. Therefore, none of us has any concept of what infrared really "looks like" in the human sense of the word. But infrared still exists physically and can be created and detected using machines. An infrared camera helps a human "see" infrared colors by converting the infrared colors to red or green. An infrared camera, therefore, does not really allow you to see infrared colors. It allows you to see red colors that are in the same spatial pattern as the infrared colors. An intelligent alien on a distant planet that has never had sight can still measure the color red using tools in a similar way to how humans measure infrared colors without being able to see them.

visible spectrum
Colors exist physically independent of humans. Every spectral color has a certain wavelength that can be measured scientifically. This image shows the wavelength of various spectral colors. Note that this image is an approximation because computer monitors cannot actually produce all spectral colors. Public Domain Image, source: Christopher S. Baird.

Physically, there are two kinds of colors: pure spectral colors and mixed colors. A pure spectral color consists of a beam of light that is a simple sine wave with a single wavelength. The wavelength of the light is the color of the light. Light is a waving of the electromagnetic field. The distance in space between the peaks of an electromagnetic wave is its wavelength, and hence its color. When you run a narrow beam of white light through a glass prism, it spreads the light out into its spectral colors. The resulting red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet pattern (and all the colors in between) shows the span of possible visible spectral colors. Red has a relatively long wavelength (compared to the other visible colors). On the other end of the visible spectrum, violet has a relatively short wavelength. All of the visible colors have wavelengths that are on the scale of hundreds of nanometers (or tenths of microns).

A mixed color is a combination of spectral colors. Exactly how much of each spectral color is added to the mix determines what the final color is. As before, the exact nature of a mixed color is a physical property that exists independent of humans. How a mixed color is perceived is human-dependent. We can say scientifically that 10 Watts of 700 nm red light added to 5 Watts of 530 nm green light and 5 Watts of 470 nm blue light makes a mixed color that exists physically and is independent of humans. Whether humans call this mixed color "pink", "fushia", "peach", "salmon", "romantic", or "George" makes no difference to the fact that it exists scientifically.

Human sight is actually quite limited. Healthy humans have only three color receptors: red, green, and blue. While it's true that the red receptors can also pick up orange and yellow, all these colors get collapsed down to a single "red" nerve signal. In the same way, the green receptors can detect yellow, green, and blue colors, but they all get collapsed down by the green receptor to a single "green" nerve signal. The same case holds for the blue receptors as well. What this means is that the color that you get when you mix red light and green light looks to a human the same as a pure spectral yellow light, even though pure yellow and red+green are scientifically different. If a certain explosive chemical can only be ignited by spectral yellow light, then red+green light will never make the stuff explode, even though human eyes can't tell the difference. This limitation of human eyes is called "metamerism".

Scientifically speaking, the human eyes are very bad detectors for measuring the true nature of a certain mixed color. A typical mixed color has many different spectral color components, and not just red, green, and blue. We want to therefore use machines and measure all the spectral colors present in a mixed color in order to accurately describe it. Each spectral color can be present in large or small amounts. In order to completely describe a mixed color scientifically, we have to tell the power and wavelength of each spectral component. The resulting plot of a certain mixed color is called its "spectral power distribution" or just its "spectrum" for short. If you ask a random intelligent human, "What is the color of the sun?", you will get the inexact answer "white". But if you ask a solar scientist or a spectrometer machine this same question, the answer will be the solar spectrum.

Topics: color, color theory, colors, light, spectrum, vision, wavelength