Imagining a New Color – Part I
Is it possible to imagine a truly new and distinct color? A color that cannot be derived from any of the existing colors we already know?
I’ve tried, and to date, I’ve failed. But I haven’t quite given up yet. And so the goal of this article is to detail my quest in search of this unknown and illusive new color. To do so, we must delve into the world of colors and learn how we perceive them all around us. But first, I want to make clear what it is I’m trying to do.
I want a new color.
I’m not talking about discovering a new tint of red, or giving name to a peculiar shade called ocean-green-berry-blue. No, what I want is an entirely new primary color. Let me clarify:
Imagine the experience of living your entire life in a black-and-white world. The only colors you know are black, white and grays. Without problem, you would be able to dream up a new shade of gray, even if you had never actually seen it before. It’s just a matter of mixing the colors you already know, in this case black and white. With that, predicting a new shade shouldn’t be too difficult. For example: mix a lot of white paint with a bit of black, and you know you’ll get light gray.
Now imagine that in this black-and-white world, you’re one day presented with the color red. Prior to this experience, you hadn’t even fathomed that such a color could exist. And even if you did know of such a color, and even if it was explained to you before hand, you still wouldn’t have known what red looked like until you saw it with your own two eyes. It would have been like trying to explain colors to a blind man.
Now the big question is, after discovering red in your otherwise black and white world, could you then sit down, close your eyes, and imagine a completely new color? Such as green for example?
To answer my question, I did just that. I shut my eyes, and tried to imagine a new primary color. I quickly realized this wasn’t easy at all. I could randomly picture new colors in my mind, but they were always derivatives of the colors I already knew. But somehow, I wasn’t able to create something new out of nothing. My brain would only allow me to create colors I was actually capable of describing. This is a major short coming of how our minds work if you ask me. And so if I am ever going to achieve my goal of imagining a new color, I will have to find a way to outsmart my own brain.
So instead of randomly trying to dream up a new color, I’ve decided to try out a new approach. I am going to design a new color and give it certain properties, so my mind will at least be able to describe it, even if I’m not yet able to actually picture it. But to do that, I will first have to start with the basics: how do we see colors?
The Source of our Colors: Light
The light we see around us is in fact electromagnetic (EM) radiation. You could say that they are little bits of quantum energy, flying about at the speed of light. But the truth is, we don’t really know. Scientists are still debating on whether light travels as waves, little photon particles, or a combination of both. It could even be something entirely different. What we do know is that the human eye is only able to see a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. At one end of the measurable spectrum, we have gamma rays, and at the other, we’ll find radio waves. Somewhere in between of all this, we have visible light.
The reason our eyes have adapted to only seeing a small range of the EM spectrum, is probably an evolutionary thing. That portion of the spectrum was the only part to penetrate our atmosphere and the ocean waters when we were still swimming about as fish. Once we did get out of the water, our evolutionary ancestors never really bothered to expand the reach of our vision. A missed opportunity if you ask me. Birds for example did do just that and they can not only see the colors we do, they’re also able to see in the ultra violet range. As a result, they may very well be able to see a lot more colors then we do, but more on that later. First, let’s go crazy…
There is no inherent difference between the visible light we see and for example the signals sent to your radio. And even though we can’t see a radio wave directly with our own eyes; for all practical purposes, it too can be considered as being light. Radio Telescopes are a good example of this. Scientists use these special telescopes to register light from outer space with longer wavelengths than those that would otherwise not be detectable by their optical counterparts. Either that, or they’re just trying to listen to radio station hosted by aliens on other planets.
Indirectly, we are able to see beyond our vision. Think of x-ray scanners at the doctor or at the airport. We use night vision goggles to better see in the dark, and then there is the whole field of infrared photography.
But imagine our eyes did evolve to encompass the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Not only would this be a truly amazing feat, our world would also look entirely different.
So how would our world look like if we could actually view a larger scope of the spectrum? Let us say you are at home and you’re hungry. You decide to heat up some left over spaghetti from last night in the microwave. When you switch it on and look through its window, you’ll see it emitting light in the microwave range. But the cool thing is, you can also see how hot your food is getting by the intensity of the infrared light it is giving off. It takes out some of the guesswork while cooking your food.
And while you wait for your spaghetti to heat up, you see you’re about to get a call. You’re mobile is emitting a beam of light to a nearby cell tower which you can see beyond your walls glowing in the distance like lamp post. It’s your friend on the phone asking you to turn on the radio. A song dedicated to you is about to be aired live on your favorite station. Simply by looking at how the light from radio waves is being absorbed by metallic objects (it passes through all the rest like glass), you can actually see where in your home you’ll get the best reception. Same is true for the reception of your mobile, you wi-fi connection, TV and GPS. In fact, you would also have night vision, be able to look through clothes. Of course, everybody would be able to see through your clothes as well. And you would also have x-ray vision. Though for the latter, you’ll still need a source that emits x-rays. Something you don’t want to do too often. But it’s time we headed back to reality.
How Our Eyes Detect Light
Being able to detect electromagnetic radiation is one thing, but sorting them into colors is another. For that, we have to look at how our eyes register light. We have two kinds of photoreceptors: rods and cones. The rod receptors aren’t capable of detecting color, but they are very sensitive to light, making them especially useful in the dark. They do however need time to readjust when light levels change. This is especially apparent when you move from a well lit room into the darkness. At first, everything will appear black, but after a while, your vision will improve and you’ll be able to make out more things in the dark. More interestingly, rod receptors aren’t able to detect red light and therefore its light sensitivity won’t be affected by it. So if you’re out on the prowl at night with a torch, it’s actually better to use a red beam of light instead of white as it won’t affect your night vision. It’s also the same reason why some car manufacturers use red dashboard lights.
Cone receptors work best in daylight and are responsible for our color vision. There are three types of cone receptors, each able to pick up specific wavelengths. One is primarily responsible for red, one for green and another for blue. A chemical inside our photoreceptors turn photons into an electrical signal. That signal is then sent to our brain, and it is in here that the actual colors are formed. And when the cones in the same region are triggered, but in different wavelengths, our brains will mix those primary colors and form new ones in the process. Red and green signals will for example form the color yellow.
We see this best when looking at rainbow where we are presented with the whole range of spectral colors from violet on one end, to red on the other. And when our red, green and blue receptors are all triggered at the same time at full intensity, we see the color white.
Loopholes in our vision system:
It’s all very well to know how our eyes work, but if I am going to design a new color, we may need to figure out if there are any loopholes in our vision system. Luckily, they do exist.
The Whiter than White Mystery
The first oddity I’ll put forward are the fluorescent colors. Why are they odd you ask? Well, normally, when light hits an object, it can do three things: pass right through it, get absorbed and or be reflected. For example, if you wanted to reflect all light, you could shine it on a mirror.
Fluorescent colors on the other hand reflect more light from their surface than what they’re actually receiving. Quite a feat when we consider we’re not dealing with a light emitting source here. How is this possible? It’s actually absorbing light from the ultra-violet spectrum and then converts it to visible light before reflecting it back. The same process happens when for example you leave a black bag out in the sun. When visible light hits it, it is converted to heat which is then radiated in the infrared spectrum. So within the visible light range, our black bag will look dark, but will appear bright in the infrared range.
That is pretty much what is happening with fluorescent colors, but in the opposite direction from the perspective of our visible spectrum. Instead of appearing darker like our black bag, fluorescents will actually appear brighter than any other surrounding color. This interesting property is also used in washing detergents. Special dyes are added to convert ultraviolet light into visible light making your white clothes appear whiter than they actually are, though maybe not necessarily cleaner.
Similar dyes are also used in office paper. Place it against any other white object and it should appear brighter and whiter. In fact, it will have a blue-violet shine to it. A sign that it is bordering on the verge of the ultra-violet spectrum.
The most interesting example of such dyes is in the use of teeth whiteners. This is where applied color theory really shines through. Teeth are naturally yellow looking. If you add white to it, you will either have to use a very opaque paint or all you’ll get is lighter tint of yellow. However, another way of neutralizing a color is by adding its complementary color to it. And the complementary color for yellow happens to be blue. It’s by no accident that your toothpaste maybe entirely blue or contain traces of it. Your teeth will not only look brighter as a result, but will also appear whiter without looking too unnatural.
And while this may all be very fascinating, I’ve so far failed to see an immediate way to exploit this particular loophole to my advantage. So lets move on…
The Magenta Mystery
When we split white light through a prism, or an elaborate rainbow, we can see the individual colors flowing from red to violet. They represent all the colors in the visible range of the EM spectrum. Yet one color is missing: magenta. Magenta is not part of the spectrum at all, yet we are still able to distinguish it. How is this possible?
When we see a color that is a mix of both red and violet wavelengths – which are at both ends of the spectrum – our brain can do one of two things. Either it represents this mixed color as something in between these two wavelengths(green for example), or it invents an entirely new color. The fact that we are able to see magenta, is proof that our brain has chosen to do the latter. So even though red and violet are at opposite ends of the spectrum, magenta makes it possible to link them making our color system look like a closed loop.
Prior to this knowledge, one could argue that the colors we see are not properties of our mind, but are based in the physical world around us. I’m not that inclined to believe that anymore. And the fact that magenta is unarguably a fictional color, gives me hope that our brains may be able to create more fictional colors.
Sounds promising? In Part II (coming soon), we’ll be wondering if birds see white when we do, and then I’ll go on to explain how I plan to design my new and novel color called Qualia.