Color is one of the most important parts of life. In fact, color is so ever present that we often forget to really appreciate it. We might notice a favorite color or two. But we’re far too likely to fall into a trap where we forget that color is an amazing subject in and of itself.
The following fun facts should help remind us that we live in a world full of wonder and surprise. And many of those surprises center around color.
1. We’re Still Discovering Clues About the Coloring of Prehistoric Animals
It’s a rare child who doesn’t have a dinosaur phase. Most of us have had moments in our youth where we were obsessed with the extinct giants. You may well imagine that we haven’t learned much about dinosaurs since you were a kid. But there’s been some fairly recent studies which have made big changes to our understanding of dinosaurs. What’s more, many of those discoveries have involved color.
A new field of study called paleocolor seeks to better understand the colors of the ancient world. In 2006 a PhD student named Jakob Vinther sat down to study a fossilized ink sac. He had a moment of shocked wonder when he realized that the ink contained melanin. Melanin is what gives ink, humans, animals and presumably even dinosaurs much of their color. And if melanin could be preserved in a fossilized ink sac then might it also exist as a trace element in dinosaur fossils?
Amazingly enough, it turned out that Jakob Vinther was right. Another researcher, Maria McNamara, would go on to discover non-melanin based color indicators in fossils as well. Of particular note is her discovery of fossilized carotenoid pigments. Imagine if someone tried to color a picture of a tiger if he only knew that it had both black and orange in its fur. We face a similar problem when trying to imagine how various colors might appear on any given dinosaur.
These discoveries will probably never give us a perfect reproduction of a dinosaur’s coloring. There simply hasn’t been enough material preserved to get an exact model of the dinosaur’s various color patterns. However, we now have tantalizing hints of the brightly colored prehistoric past. We might not be able to discover the exact color distribution of any given dinosaur. But we are starting to gain an understanding of which colors were present on various specimens.
2. Pink Is the Oldest Color in the Geological Record
We’ve managed to find lingering remnants of color from dinosaur fossils. However, the investigation into ancient colors has moved far beyond dinosaurs. Researchers have found colors from simple lifeforms which existed long before the first dinosaurs.
This discovery came from rocks which predated the dinosaurs by about 750 million years. Researchers discovered remnants of ancient cyanobacteria within ancient rock. What’s more, they also found pigments of pink in the organism’s chlorophyll.
Thanks to this discovery we can now say that the oldest known biologically produced color is pink.
3. What Gives the Red Planet Such a Distinctive Color?
Mars is getting a lot of attention these days. Multiple countries have sent out missions to the Red Planet over the past few years. Both the US and China even have plans to send back samples to earth in the near future. But all of this attention raises an important question. We often call Mars the Red Planet, but where does that distinctive color come from?
A lot of the red on Mars comes from oxidation. The large amount of iron in Martian soil can essentially rust just like it would on earth. Over time this has created a reddish landscape. However, a lot of the red in photographs of Mars is actually photo-edited in. This is because there’s a lot of debate about how to properly color pictures of Mars.
Untouched images from cameras on satellites and rovers will typically be a little blurry. These are usually known as raw images. The images are about what one would expect if taking a picture on earth in hazy weather. The cameras need to contend with various environmental factors that can produce visual distortions.
Calibrated images have some minor editing for color and contrast. These images are an attempt to recreate what we’d see on Mars. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this means seeing the planet through a different atmosphere than here on earth. Basically, every planet’s atmosphere creates a color filter of sorts. The same Martian rock would have slightly different colors when seen on earth than on Mars. Photos which try to show what a Martian area would look like under our atmosphere are usually white balanced.
Similar efforts are performed with images from other planets as well. It’s an important reminder that there’s more subjectivity to color than we often assume. When we look out on the colors of the world we’re not just seeing individual objects. We’re also seeing light refracted through a wide variety of environmental conditions. In fact, this is also why we see a yellow sun when we look up into the sky. The sun actually burns as a fiery hot white star. But when we look up into the sky, we’re peering at the sun through the filter of earth’s atmosphere that makes the normally white sun appear yellow to our eyes. This misidentification of colors is called metamerism.
4. Some Animals Speak in a Language Made of Color
It’s hardly unusual to say that particular colors speak to us. We all have colors which bring up good memories and associations. For example, put red and green together and a lot of people will nostalgically reflect on Christmas. Orange and black will often bring back happy memories from Halloween. But what if we could take that further and communicate more complex ideas through color? What if our brains could output ideas in color rather than through sound?
Some species have managed to do exactly that. Different types of squid and octopi communicate with colors. The exact nature of colors and patterns differs on a species by species basis. However, there does seem to be some uniformity in how members of the cephalopod family create colors and patterns on their skin. One researcher has even named it an “alphabet of patterns”. The animal’s complex nervous system can change the color and patterns on its body within a single second. This essentially makes their entire body act as a living LCD screen.
However, it’s going to take a lot of additional research to answer the biggest question – what are squids discussing? We know that squids and octopi are often extremely intelligent. The animals have displayed amazing feats of logic and puzzle solving proficiency. But humans are having a difficult time cracking the color based puzzle presented by these brainy animals. We know they’re conveying messages to each other by changing colors and patterns on their skin. But we’re still in the dark as to the meaning behind it.
5. We’re Born With a Distinct Love for the Color Red
What was your favorite color when you were a kid? It’s a simple question which will elicit a wide range of responses. Many people will tie in their favorite colors with special events from their youth. Others have simply loved a particular color for no apparent reason throughout most of their lives.
However, what if we go back even further than our grade school years? What was your favorite color when you were just an infant? It might seem like a question which can’t be answered. After all, every baby should have distinct preferences. But in fact, that’s not really the case for the youngest infants. Red is the favorite color of every infant under eight weeks old. Why can we state that with such authority? The easy answer is that red is also the only color babies can see at that point in their development.
We see color thanks to special cells in our eyes called cones. But like most parts of an infant’s body the cones need time to develop. The world of an infant is largely gray with splotches of red. This is due to the fact that the cone cells which process red are the first to develop. It takes about eight weeks before babies start to differentiate between red and green. But just a few more weeks past that point and a baby can also see blue and yellowish-brown. Other colors such as pink and more vibrant shades of yellow aren’t perceptible until around the time a baby starts to use language.
As babies start to see more colors their preferences will shift. But there’s a few absolutes. At the very beginning of life a baby’s world is only made of grays and red. So red is their favorite color by default. But as they experience new colors they develop new favorites as well.
6. Blue Eyes Indicate Real World Mutations
Movies and comic books featuring powerful mutants have been a mainstay of pop culture through multiple generations of fans. But did you know that there are real life mutants living among us? In fact, if you have blue eyes then you’re one of them. But don’t get too excited. Your only superpower is lowered melanin production in your eyes.
Interestingly enough we actually have a rough idea of where this mutation comes from. Scientists have pinned blue eyes to a specific individual who lived about six thousand to ten thousand years ago.
If you have blue eyes then you can be sure of two things. One is that you have a very specific mutation in your OCA2 gene. The other is that you share a very distant ancestor with every other person with blue eyes.
7. Perception of the Color Blue Might Be a Fairly New Trait for Humans
Blue eyes might be a relatively new addition to humanity. But there’s some evidence that our distant ancestors didn’t even have a solid perception of the color blue. Think back to the great works of ancient literature such as the Odyssey.
A reader specifically considering individual examples of color will notice an odd trend in ancient literature. Things we’d call blue aren’t described that way. For example, the Odyssey describes the ocean as “wine-dark”. The same trend holds true through the writings of other ancient cultures such as China and India.
The only exception is found in the writings of ancient Egypt. Significantly, this is also the only ancient civilization which had access to materials that could make blue dyes. Keep this point in mind because it’s going to become very important. The first known culture to the color blue as something special was also the only one which gave people an opportunity to actively work with it.
Researchers put the idea that most ancient humans couldn’t identify the color blue to the test by running color recognition experiments on people from different cultures. Members of the Himba tribe were especially important as their language doesn’t have a word for blue. The researchers suspected that this would make them visually similar to ancient colors when it came to the color blue. And indeed, they struggled to differentiate blue from green. But at the same time, the tribe has words for green which are lacking in most other cultures.
In a different color test the Himba tribe members were able to differentiate between shades of green which seem identical to most people in our culture. This suggests that humans need to learn increased importance for certain colors in order to recognize them. It also falls in line with the fact that babies only start to recognize pink and yellow once they’re able to talk.
The theory also suggests that ancient Egyptians were able to see shades of blue because they were able to directly manipulate blue dyes. Egyptians were able to change hues of blue as needed. Likewise, they could discuss those differing shades with their children during the developmental phase. We may see different colors more clearly in large part because we learn to focus on them at a young age. Otherwise a color might simply seem like a subtle variation of something similar.