The Wonder of Color
December 2, 2019

Color is all around us and there’s no time like the holidays to experience it. Twinkling lights, bright colored decorations, ribbons, and beautiful packages all add to the wonder of the season. Let’s take a moment to consider the science of color. It’s truly awesome!

Most people perceive a million different colors. We have many words for these colors, but language can never capture our extraordinary range of hues. Our powers of color vision derive from cells in our eyes called cones, three types in all, each triggered by different wavelengths of light. Every moment our eyes are open, those three cones fire off messages to the brain. The brain then combines the signals to produce the phenomena we call color.

Take one cone away—go from being what scientists call a trichromat to a dichromat—and the number of possible combinations drops to 10,000. Almost all other mammals, including dogs and some monkeys, are dichromats. The richness of the world most humans see (color blindness affects approximately 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women in the world) is rivaled only by that of birds and some insects, which also perceive the ultraviolet part of the spectrum.

Researchers suspect, though, that some people see even more. Living among us are people with four cones, who might experience a range of colors invisible to the rest. In fact, British scientists discovered such a woman known only as cDa29, (and suspect there are more) about a decade ago. It’s possible these so-called tetrachromats see a hundred million colors, with each familiar hue fracturing into a hundred more subtle shades for which there are no names. And because perceiving color is a personal experience, they would have no way of knowing they see far beyond what we consider the limits of human vision.

What would it be like to see through cDa29’s eyes? Unfortunately, she cannot describe how her color vision compares with ours, any more than we can describe to a dichromatic person what red looks like. Learn more.

In the book Liza’s Colorful Tale, we learn more about color and the light waves that create it. We create colors beyond the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue by mixing, adding or subtracting colors. But that’s not all. Check out our holiday art project as we create cool and colorful ice sculptures.

Even though most of us don’t have super vision like cDa29, seeing a million colors is pretty special! Take time this holiday season to “drink in” the wonder of color that surrounds us.

Happy holidays!