Each year, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science issues the Flame Challenge, challenging scientists to communicate complex subjects to 11 year olds in 300 words or less. This year, the challenge was to explain color. Although I’m not a scientist and cannot compete, I couldn’t resist.
What is color?
Color is an important part of our world, but what is color?
Color is the result of our eyes catching light in different ways.
To someone that’s colorblind, these two images look the same. Color evolved so we could distinguish between shades of grey.
Other animals evolved to see slightly different portions of light.
Cats only have color receptors for green and blue, whereas humans have green, blue and red.
Cats may see less color, but they see better in the dark.
How can one flower be seen three different ways?
We don’t see all the light bouncing around us. We only see a thin strip of light. Shift that slightly so you have the vision of a bee, and you’ll see things that are invisible to our eyes.
If that isn’t weird enough, some animals see colors we can’t even begin to imagine.
The mantis shrimp sees twelve primary colors! Not only do shrimp see more colors than us, shrimp see over a wider range! What do these extra colors look like? We have no idea. Just as we couldn’t explain red to someone born colorblind, we can’t picture the colors a shrimp can see.
What would an alien see if they came to Earth?
If an alien were to visit Earth they would probably have some form of sight. Sight is so useful it evolved independently on Earth over forty different times! An alien would have to be able to see the stars before traveling to them, but their sight would have evolved on an entirely different world, so they’re probably going to see differently, just like cats and bees.
What is color?
A convenient way our eyes perceive light. Our eyes interpret the black-and-white world around us, adding a touch of excitement to our sight.