It seems every 12 months or so, someone starts blabbering “scientific” “proof” that the color magenta or something else is some optical illusion that isn’t real because, hey, look, it’s not there on the rainbow and it’s not on the electromagnetic spectrum so it must be a trick! Right?
This is an appealing idea because your brain is a hell of trickster. So why not throw what we thought was magenta on the pile of estimates and illusions that form our senses?
OK, yes, if you put the colors of the rainbow in a circle, you’d notice that red and purple slam into each other with no magenta in between. But why would you do that? The wavelengths of light are measured in length (it’s right there in the word “wavelength”!), so curling the visible spectrum into a circle is like trying to curl up a middle section of yardstick into a circle and being gobsmacked that 12 inches is now next to 23 inches. Yeah, that’s weird, but nonsense is what happens when you bend something linear into a circle.
And if magenta doesn’t exist because it’s not in the rainbow, well, billions of other colors don’t exist either. Where’s pale yellow? Sky blue? Forest green? Brown? Black? White? Ah, if white doesn’t exist, what hope is there for the GOP?! What this line of thinking leaves out is that all colors that we see are combinations of wavelengths of light. Put all the visible spectrum together and we see white. Take green away from white and you’ve got magenta. Add white to red and you’ve got pink. That doesn’t make them less real.
On a more fundamental level, however, Krulwich is right. Pink is not out there, because no color is really “out there.” The world is full of electromagnetic radiation, and the only intrinsic properties that this radiation possesses are physical ones such as wavelength and intensity. Color, on the other hand, is all in your head. “Color is not actually a property of light or of objects that reflect light,” wrote the biologist Timothy H. Goldsmith in his 2006 Scientific American article What Birds See. “It is a sensation that arises within the brain.” My colleagues at Scientific American Mind have for years been elucidating the ways in which the optic system converts electromagnetic radiation into color, a mysterious and fascinating process (and one that can go wrong in interesting ways). Recent research even indicates that people can be made to see “forbidden colors“—greens that are tinted red, or blues that appear yellow.
Pink is real—or it is not—but it is just as real or not-real as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.
OK, now I’m freaking out.
(The Scientific American post via this awesome post on The Awl)