Is January a bleak, colorless time of the year where you live? To brighten your gray winter days, we’ve asked Jeopardy! phenom Ken Jennings to poke holes in four of your most embarrassing misconceptions about color. After all, there are plenty of colorful anniversaries to observe this month. The first color TV broadcast was the Rose Bowl of January 1953, and in January 1993, Crayola added sixteen new colors to its crayon boxes, including “Tickle Me Pink” and “Macaroni and Cheese.” The political novel Primary Colors was a January release; so was Radiohead’s album In Rainbows. Could there be a better time of year for a kaleidoscope of facts that—however colorful—are completely wrong?
Color Myth #2: There Are Seven Colors of the Rainbow.
Young kids are often taught about Roy G. Biv, a hypothetical gentleman who helps them remember the seven colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Even kindergartners tend to rebel at the mysterious ‘I’ in Mr. Biv’s name, however. What the hell is indigo? It has to be explained to them that indigo, halfway between blue and purple, is actually a very different, super-important color, trust us.
In fact, indigo is a bit of a fraud. The other six “colors of the rainbow” are the long-enshrined primary and secondary colors of art theory. Indigo only got shoehorned into the rainbow because Isaac Newton, who originally saw five colors in the spectrum, decided decades later when he wrote his landmark treatise Opticks that seven would be a more elegant number. He believed the seven colors should harmonize somehow with the seven classical “planets” in the night sky and the seven notes on the diatonic scale. So he added orange, along with indigo, an important dark blue dye since ancient times. In reality, most observers have a hard time seeing indigo as a separate band of the spectrum, and it’s not usually included in modern color theory.
If indigo is iffy, how many colors are there really? Well, the human eye can distinguish between about a million different hues, but a real rainbow displays its shades in one continuous spectrum, not the neat stripes of a Care Bears cartoon. In the Iliad, Homer refers to a one-tone purple rainbow, because the ancient Greeks didn’t have words for the full spectrum of color. Later classical and medieval thinkers agreed with Aristotle that the rainbow had three shades; in Islamic thought, there are four, corresponding to the four elements. So it’s largely a cultural call. Many Asian languages, even today, use the same word for “blue” or “green”—someone in China might describe the rainbow very differently from someone in Finland, or Papua New Guinea. Let’s just say there’s a wide spectrum of possibilities.
Quick Quiz: What university’s football, golf, and volleyball teams removed the word “Rainbow” from their team names in 2000?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead, out now. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.
Photo by Flickr user yettis doings. Used under a Creative Commons License.