Mental Noodling About Color, Ancient Peoples, and Alien Races

Mental Noodling About Color, Ancient Peoples, and Alien Races

Do any of you out there ever listen to RadioLab, a radio show that broadcasts on NPR stations? It’s a really fabulous show and podcast that’s best described as similar to This American Life but with stories about science and cool stuff instead of just about people’s inner lives. Except the explorations of science and geeky stuff often also includes stories of people’s inner lives. It’s a pretty sweet show.

The most recent episode is called Colors and is an exploration about a bunch of stuff about color. I know, what a surprise. My favorite section is the last one called “Why Isn’t The Sky Blue?” and delves into why the descriptions of color in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are so… off. The basic explanation is that ancient people saw fewer colors than we see even though they had the physical ability to see more[1].

When I first listened to this show I geeked out a bit because I remember hearing this same thing in class back at NYU. How it starts with a long-ago British prime minister noticing that Homer never describes the sky as blue and snowballs into an exploration of how colors come into the human consciousness. My teacher at the time, Scott McPartland, said that the ancient Greeks didn’t see all colors, even though they existed, because they didn’t yet have the imagination to see them. The scientists interviewed on RadioLab have different explanations, but I like Scott’s better.

Scott also stated that two of the traditional rainbow colors are completely made up. That would be Indigo and Orange. These in-between colors were invented to make 7 colors, as 7 is a more perfect or spiritual number.

Yes, this assertion is probably arguable. I remember we argued about it in class a lot. Especially about orange. Apparently before oranges were orange (which they’re bred to be), they were yellow. So we invented oranges to justify orange as a legit color. Fascinating.

Anyway, I bring all this up not just because you should listen to RadioLab or argue with me about the realness of Orange and Indigo, but because I think this is an interesting bit of knowledge to keep in mind if you’re writing about an ancient people. How does your writing change if you can’t use the entire rainbow of colors? Not being able to describe the sky as blue? Or a berry as red or purple? Or the grass and leaves as green? How does that change how your characters see the world and relate to it?

Another cool thing mentioned earlier in the show is that some animals and insects have the ability to see thousands and millions more colors than we can. I’m toying with the idea of an alien race that can see far more colors than we can and how that affects how they relate to us. There is always an assumption that humanoid races pretty much see how we see, but even on our own planet there is a wide range of color seeing ability, thus it’s less likely to be homogeneous across worlds.

Footnotes

  1. Listen to the entire show for an explanation of how our eyes see color.[]