There’s a reason Matisse left white borders of blank canvas in his paintings, and why your dogs don’t appreciate a Mark Rothko color field the way you do (aside from dogs’ general disregard for art). Our perception of color is linked to the brain, and highly subjective. While on the surface this seems like a fairly straightforward concept, the science behind color is complex.
So, how would you explain color to an 11-year-old? That was the instigation behind this year’s Flame Challenge, a project that participated in the 2014 World Science Festival with an event called “What Is Color?” last Sunday at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. The Flame Challenge at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University was started by actor and science proponent Alan Alda as a way to engage kids in science, taking its name from his own curiosity about what sparked a flame when he was 11.
“What Is Color?” featured three scientists examining color from unique angles, with vision researcher and professor of ophthalmology at the University of Washington Jay Neitz, neuroscientist at Wellesley College and artist Bevil Conway, and neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine David Eagleman. The title question was also the subject of this year’s Flame Challenge, to which hundreds of scientists submitted answers. Sunday’s event concluded with the awarding of the winners, who were determined by 27,000 11-year-olds from 19 countries.
Most of us already understand the basic idea behind color: various wavelengths cause us to perceive distinct hues. Or, as Neitz succinctly put it: “Color is a property of light falling on an object, and more important, our brain’s reaction.” Yet, if you pause a moment to consider what that means, you realize color isn’t the same for everyone or everything.
Neitz explained how our retinas, which have about five million cones in three types, give us a very different color vision from most mammals, like dogs, which only have two types of cones and so see the world in a much more color-limited way. (Mantis shrimp, meanwhile, have 16 cones, an unimaginable experience.) Since the “What Is Color?” crowd skewed young (and everyone can use a good visual for understanding science), Neitz used a sodium light with its almost single wavelength to show how it washes out our color vision, as well as a board with three blinking Christmas lights to illustrate how the rapidity of wavelength impulses hitting retina cones determines the richness of color.
“Color is also what’s around it,” added Conway, who is an active artist in addition to doing his neuroscience research on visual behavior. “It gives you a different way of thinking about being an artist,” he said, emphasizing how artists in the studio must experiment as much as scientists in any laboratory with the mixing of inputs. Painters know that just because a color looks one way out of the tube, that doesn’t mean it will look the same once added to a background (which is why Matisse often used empty space — to keep the punch of the original colors).
As another example, Conway cited artist Josef Albers, who would often use shapes in the same color on two disparate backgrounds, making them appear as two separate colors. “We have this illusion that color is out in the world, but it’s really in our head,” Conway explained.
Finally, there was Eagleman, who offered a specialized perspective on why some people perceive color in numbers, letters, and other nonvisual stimuli. Known as synesthesia, this “alternate perception of reality” is still in its early stages of study so it’s not clear exactly what’s happening, but Eagleman cited artists Kandinsky and David Hockney as both having been influenced by synesthesia. To bring those of us not wired in such a way into the experience, neuroscientist, violinist, and synesthete Kaitlyn Hova gave her take on the Postal Service song “Such Great Heights” with colors flashing in the way she herself perceives them.
Submissions are now open for kids to help choose next year’s Flame Challenge question, and the whole “What Is Color?” event is available to watch on livestream. While the complete story of the human brain and how it shapes our perception of the world’s colors can’t be covered in one event, “What Is Color?” provided an engaging start.
“What Is Color?” was held on June 1 at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts (566 Laguardia Place, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) as part of the 2014 World Science Festival. The World Science Festival took place May 28–June 1 around New York City.
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