26 April, 2013

An American In Periwinkle

Why is the sky blue? After all, nothing in it is blue. 78% Nitrogen - no color. 21% Oxygen - no color. Trace of argon. Water vapor. No color. No color. There has to be some reason it's blue - other than to make me feel good.

A redheaded Aussie friend recently blogged that she thought she might be feeling blue. She then went on to discount that and looked for another color that would best correlate with her mood. It was an interesting initial choice since she could be called a "bluey" in Australian slang (think carrot top in the US).

Rather than correlating moods and colors, I’m actually thinking, however, more about why blue is blue. Sometimes red hair is called titian or copper or ginger. Or orange! Where do these names come from? We often speak of ROY G BIV as if he actually were someone, and as you might expect, I met ROY in the spring of 1967 when I took my first psychology course.

If you’re unfamiliar with that mnemonic, it refers to Red-Orange-Yellow-Green-Blue-Indigo-Violet. These are the seven colors of the visible light spectrum – although scientists aren’t too crazy about indigo for some reason, and it gets left out a lot. Other cultures, by the way, divide it up differently than we do.

We are capable of discriminating about ten million different colors. What a piece of work is man, and how exquisite in sensitivity is our visual system! I don’t know if we have named them all, but we do have a system for numbering these colors based on their hue, saturation, and value (or brightness). Some names that we use tend toward the abstract. That is what ROY G BIV is mostly about. Just labels. Red. Blue. Etc.

Often, however, an object becomes the name. Without getting into word origins, we may have a bit of a chicken or the egg problem here, and I’m too lazy for that today. Which came first – the color Orange or the fruit orange. Is the color Violet named after the flower or is the flower named after the color. Let’s save that for another day. Salmon. Periwinkle. Fuchsia. On and on.

I mention those last two colors because I like them. A lot. But that brings us to the oddity of our naming conventions. If I look at a standardized naming chart, those names don’t quite correspond to my mind’s memory of those colors, but I persist in calling those experiences by those names. Based on the numbers, they are not far off, but my Fuchsia is more like Rose and my Periwinkle more like Majorelle Blue - at least in that chart. Someone else might see them as Razzle Dazzle Rose or Rich Electric Blue.

Does any of this matter? Nah. Whatever you call them, they are beautiful to behold, and the nice thing about such favorites is it’s easy to just close your eyes and enjoy them - even when the flowers aren't blooming. If you want to give your mood a color name, be my guest. You'll have a beautiful mood.

Oh, that thing about the sky? First, I’m sure you’re aware that sunlight is a blend of all the various colors. Right? Of course, you are. Well, the longer wavelengths of light (R-O-Y, etc.) pass right through the atmosphere pretty much unaffected. The shorter wavelengths, however, bump into the molecules of whatever is around – nitrogen, oxygen, dust, water vapor – and get absorbed. Then because those molecules are everywhere in the sky, what we call the Blues (predominantly) get scattered in all directions. So … everywhere you look you see that blue sky. Aren’t you glad you asked?