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5 Facts About Colors That Will Change How You See the World

There's not a lot to think about when it comes to color. That's green, that's blue, that's red.

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That's infected.

So if you figured there's nothing really interesting going on with color, that's a reasonable opinion, and completely wrong.

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Idiot.

It turns out that "color" exists in the bizarrely complicated intersection of several different scientific areas, where trucks full of physics, biology, and psychology regularly smash into each other. You were a fool for thinking you understood even a bit of this and should be ashamed of everything you are.

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Loving father? Nope. You're just a color idiot.

So, in the interest of getting you back on track with a chance of living a useful life, here I present five surprising facts about color.

#5. Blue and Green Are the Same Color to Many Cultures

Here's a picture of a Japanese traffic light.

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Nothing weird about that.

And here's a different Japanese traffic light.

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What the holy Shinto Jesus?

Is that blue? Is that green light totally blue?

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It is blue! And not the sad kind of blue either. Although this is Japan, traffic lights aren't that advanced.

It turns out that the Japanese word "ao" is used to describe both blue and green shades, and that historically the Japanese haven't really distinguished between the colors. Indeed, the world is full of languages that don't have words to describe obvious colors, and without a word to describe those colors, they're much harder for speakers of those languages to distinguish when they encounter them.

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Sort of like how the Western world had no concept of love until the word "bae" appeared.

It wasn't until Japan was occupied by Americans following World War II that they began to differentiate between green and blue, and even to this day, the distinction might seem muddled to a non-native speaker.

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So if you're in Japan and someone comes sprinting by, screaming "Flee for your life from the horrible green
robot!" look out for blue ones, too.

#4. There's a Shade of Brown Made of People

We don't often consider where all our colors come from, how we came to live in a world that's so much brighter than the drab brown land our ancestors walked in.

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Brown Cheetos would not sell well.

Pigments are made from a variety of sources, including minerals, synthetically produced chemicals, plants, and even the crushed bodies of insects.

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"What'd the guidance counselor say?"
"Apparently my ideal career is 'pigment.'"
"Ouch."

Which brings me to mummy brown, a once very popular shade of brown pigment that was made from ground-up mummies. Yes, those mummies.

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These ones.

This is part of a bizarre trade in mummies that occurred in the late Middle Ages, when mummies were exported from Egypt to Europe to be used for a variety of medicinal purposes. And once you've taken the step of grinding up human beings and eating them, it's not much more to start painting with them.

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This art is literally made of people. PEEEEEEEEOOPPPPPPLE!

Eventually the concept of morality was discovered in the early 20th century, and the practice of using mummies for painting faded away. There are even touching stories of artists burying their tubes of mummy-brown paint in the garden. When I asked them, art experts were uncertain whether there is any risk of these tubes of paint rising from the grave to avenge the crimes committed against them (most even refused to answer the question). So at this point I will state, with the bare minimum of rising panic in my voice, that you are a fool if you don't keep a gun trained on any garden you happen to set foot in.

#3. We Can See Colors That Don't Exist

Color exists in our brains, and our understanding of it is inevitably constrained by the limitations of the tools we have to observe it, namely our eyes.

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Our sexy, sexy eyes.

Our eyes don't just perceive the light as it actually exists; the three types of cones in our retinas respond to different ranges of wavelengths, and it's the combination of those cones' responses that causes our brains to perceive specific colors. How our brains combine these responses isn't completely understood, although we do have a good handle on the range of colors they can see.

Wikimedia Commons
We can see a tongue of color, basically.

And knowing the limitations of what colors we can and cannot see made it all the more surprising when some of our bravest eye scientists reported back from one of their expeditions that they had found ways to trick our eyes into perceiving colors that can't possibly exist. Called "impossible colors," these are shades that should be impossible to perceive under normal lighting conditions, and include a color that exists between blue and yellow (hint: it's not green) and something that exists between green and red (Christmas maybe?). Then there's the family of so-called chimerical colors, which use the tendency our eyes have of forming negative afterimages to generate colors that cannot possibly exist. These include the impossibly bluish shade of black with the awesome name of Stygian blue, which you can see below.

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It might take a few seconds, and it will look like an impossibly dark blue circle on a black field. If you can't see it, just enjoy the sad little Charon clip art.

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Chris Bucholz

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