Rob Hardy on books


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The Rainbow and More



Rob Hardy


As a kid you probably learned the name Roy G. Biv, a mnemonic for the colors of the rainbow. Now comes ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book about Color (Bloomsbury) by design and culture writer Jude Stewart. As she makes clear in her introduction, the mnemonic is useful, but like most rules of thumb, it is an oversimplification. There are not seven colors of the rainbow, but an infinite spectrum. Even that infinite spectrum does not take in all colors; there is no pink, for instance, nor brown nor gray, and then white and black (which are arguably not colors) aren't there either. The choice of seven colors for the rainbow is arbitrary, and we can thank Isaac Newton himself for them; he wanted to match the seven-tone musical scale, and six colors would not do, so he shoved indigo in toward the end. That's the sort of important trivia Stewart has packed into her chapters here, one for each of the rainbow's colors (well, indigo and violet get one together) plus pink and gray and those others. It is a book made for browsing, and is cleverly laid out, with, naturally, extensive use of color. 




In her introduction, Stewart tells why she has produced a book about color(s). Colors are important to think about; philosophers, for example, have extensively considered whether the red you see is the same as the red everyone else sees. It's no small issue; if we cannot enter someone else's head enough to know even that, how are we ever to come to bigger understandings? Wittgenstein drew meaning from impossible colors like reddish-green. And though people may see the same spectrum, their verbal impressions of it are very different. Not all languages have the spectrum of words that English does for colors. Some have only three color words, and those three are, for each of those languages, black, white, and red. For four color words, the language has also yellow or green. Then blue, then brown for languages with more color words.  




The heart of the book is facts for each color. I will sample: 


White - the color of bridal gowns, but this only became standard with the wedding of Victoria and Albert in 1840, when Victoria chose this relatively blank canvas and eschewed rich colors and jewels. 


Pink - was used as a color for British warships in World War II. It hid them nicely at dawn or dusk, and also matched the German's pink marker dye so they would be shooting at their own shells. It was conspicuous at other times and situations, and was not used after 1942. 


Red - known by all societies as the color of blood, though it is brighter when seen on the outside of the body than it is within. Also, not all creatures have red blood. It's blue for horseshoe crabs, and mustard-yellow for sea squirts and sea cucumbers. 


Orange - the blossoms of the orange fruit have been clutched by brides for centuries; the tradition comes from flowers that are delicate, but turn into robust fruits from trees that bear year after year. 


Brown - a weapon would might be praised as a "brown blade" because it had traces of blood on it; to "burnish" a weapon originally meant to make it brown. 


Yellow - the Indian Yellow pigment on the painter's shelf was colored with urine, but not just any urine - it came from crystals of urine from cows fed solely on mango leaves. 


Green - is not a color for hats in China; "wearing a green hat" sounds in Chinese like the word for "cuckold." 


Blue - is people's favorite color in surveys of the Western world, but it isn't among the top hundred most-frequent words, where you will find red, white, black, yellow, and green, but not blue. 


Purple - like "orange" and "silver" is supposed to be a word that has no rhyme, but Robert Burns rhymed it with "curple," a synonym for an anatomical posterior, in "Epistle to Mrs. Scott." 


Gray - will be the color of Gray Goo, the world's stuff as consumed by nano-robots, and ruining the Earth forever. It is not a worry in only science fiction. 


Black - there is no black blacker than new shade from sheets of carbon nanotubes, which suck up light from all angles and frequencies better than any previous pigment. 


Finally, there is a chapter on imaginary colors, found only in fiction, and synesthesia, and impossible colors. Wittgenstein's reddish-green isn't actually impossible; researchers have screened red and green of equal brightness, and observers have various subjective impressions which mix the two. 




It is possible to read ROY G. BIV from beginning to end, but the book invites browsing. No color exists in isolation, so if you are in the Green chapter, and read how plants on Earth reflect green but absorb blue light rays, "blue light rays" is underlined (in blue, naturally), directing you to a side note telling you how to go to a page in the Blue chapter about why the sky is blue; on that page you will find a reference to Purple Rain, which sends you to the Purple chapter, and so on. The cross-references are intricate. The facts are of diverse significance, and some will engender in the reader an interest in researching more deeply than the pages of this happy miscellany allow. It would not be a bad reference book for designers, but is more fun than a reference book has a right to be.



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