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Rippin' the Rainbow a New One

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We tear into this show with a dark scene from 1665. A young Isaac Newton, hoping to ride out the plague by heading to the country to puzzle over the deep mysteries of the universe, finds himself wondering about light. And vision. He wants to get to the bottom of where color comes from--is it a physical property in the outside world, or something created back inside your eyeball somewhere? James Gleick explains how Newton unlocked the mystery of the rainbow. And, as Victoria Finlay tells us, sucked the poetry out of the heavens.

Jonah Lehrer restores some of the lost magic by way of Goethe--who turned a simple observation into a deep thought: even though color starts in the physical world, it is finished in our minds.

Which, thanks to Mark Changizi, brings us to a very serious question: what do dogs see when they look at the rainbow? We humans see seven colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet (ROYGBiV!). But as Thomas Cronin and Jay Neitz--two guys who study vision--explain, that's just a sliver of the spectrum. Along the way, we get some help imagining the rainbow from a choir, and we meet a little sea creature (pictured below), who with 16 color receptors, blows the rest of us earthlings out of the water. 

Mantis shrimp

Mantis shrimp, photo by ursanate/flickr-CC-BY-2.0

UPDATE: In the years since we first aired this episode, more research has gone into these amazing little creatures and there is new evidence to suggest that while the Mantis Shrimp has all the parts necessary to see a Super Duper Rainbow, they may not, in fact, be engaging this potential. Curious? Check it out!



Read more:

James Gleick, Issac Newton

Victoria Finlay, Color: A Natural History of the Palette

And be sure to check out The Oatmeal's amazing amazing post, "Why the Mantis Shrimp is my new favorite animal," inspired by this episode. 


Mark Changizi, Thomas Cronin, Victoria Finlay, James Gleick, Jonah Lehrer and Jay Neitz

Comments [46]

Glyn Griffiths from UK

Great show. Thanks. I have a completely different theory about the blue conundrum. I disagree with your contributor that says blue is rare in nature. I think the opposite is the case. We live on a blue planet. Anyone that takes photography seriously knows that blue is the predominant wavelength of our natural light. So much so that if we want to see colour clearly in photos we need to filter some of the blue out. Even more so when you go down 10-15ft over a coral reef. You kind of just about see the reds and greens of the corals but all through a blue filter. Pretty much everything is blue. So imagine you grew up on that coral reef under water. You would come up with terms for the subtle colours that made one coral different from another...but you probably wouldn't come up with a colour to name the default colour pervading everything. You wouldn't even realise that your colour perception was so dominated by blue. You may even call an object white, even though to our (above the sea) eyes it would clearly be look blue. To a lesser extent we are the same. Perhaps blue is so pervasive that we didn't notice it for centuries simply because it was the filter through which we saw everything else. Blue was light itself. We just didn't realise we lived in a blue world yet.

Feb. 06 2018 05:17 AM
birnbaum from new york

Amazing but the music was so loud and I couldn't hear certain parts.

Jun. 14 2017 12:07 AM

This podcast would be a lot better if there wasn't any singing, so i can hear what was going on. Also the singing is just irritating.

Mar. 03 2017 05:57 PM
Stuart Filler from Birmingham, MI

The speaker says blue plus red gives purple, and yellow plus red, orange; but that is mixing pigments not colors of light. Blue plus red is magenta, that's white minus green, and green plus red is yellow, that's white minus blue. Add some more red to the yellow, and you get yellow-red or red-yellow, maybe orangey.

Aug. 21 2016 05:08 PM
Sandy Larson

I just had cataract surgery and feel colors have faded after having my "human" lens replaced with a synthetic one. everyone accuses me of being hypersensitive, but this show makes me wonder if I actually did lose some color perception. Painters, artists, beware of cataract surgery!

Aug. 21 2016 12:41 PM
R.D. Wilks from Earth

Actually color printers normally use either four or six colors. 28:34

Jul. 26 2016 12:57 PM
Justice Smith from Brevard College

I enjoyed watching this podcast on colors. It was very interesting on the differences in the way humans view colors and the way dogs and butterflies see them. Also, Isaac Newton was a very smart man for figuring out the theory of the actual color that appears to the eye.

Apr. 18 2016 09:38 PM
In†erS†ellar from stockholm

I have listened to this wonderful podcast and I truly enjoyed it.

Just one thing:
The other day the sunset was an amazing shade of red, pink, orange and purple.
I told my dog to look at it, and he seemed to think it was just as beautiful as I did.

Is it possible that my bullmastiff has a more developed sight of colour?

Mar. 30 2016 05:07 PM
paul steffas from Santa Clara, CA

Very interesting! Google has way to search literature back a few centuries in English literature. (Google Ngram) Here is a search I did on how often colors showed up in the language. Between 1875 and 1920 blue made a shift - an increase in the frequency of usage.

Jun. 20 2015 01:18 AM
Skye Eagleday from Turtle Island

In my mom's Native American language (Sahaptin), I was always struck by anthropologists with their "color test" of showing non-English speakers color tiles or a laptop display and asking for the name of a particular color. But that doesn't work with us because, for example, the color "white" for a non-living object (like a laptop display) is different than the word for a white horse. Like a lot of other Native Americans, we don't have a word for "purple." I'm a NY Times bestselling author, so I think about words a lot.

Apr. 18 2015 06:59 PM
Douglas Gill from Columbus, Ohio

When I lived in Taiwan, Chinese women would describe their black hair as black, blue and purple. I couldn't see the differences. They all looked black. And then, one of the women said, if you look at the shine of the hair, you'll see it. And sure enough, I could see it.

Also, the Chinese kept saying that my hair was blond. I'm a red head. They couldn't tell the difference, they said, between blond and red-heads.

I worked with a woman from Trinidad. Ethnically, she was Afro-Caribbean. Out of the blue, she said, "Doug, you have red hair!" I looked at her and said, "Yeah, I know." She said, "No, you don't understand. I never noticed it wasn't blond. All of a sudden, I got why everyone said you have red hair. Everyone has black hair where I'm from."

Apr. 18 2015 01:54 PM

The chorus is EXTREMELY annoying. I have to listen to this podcast for a class, but all that noise is very distracting. Please do not ever do this if you want people to return and listen to more of your radio. I did not get ANY answer or information out of this because of your background sound effects and seems like I have to google EVERYTHING on my own. My ears hurt so much listening to this. PLEASE NEVER DO THIS AGAIN.

Feb. 16 2015 05:26 PM
Jeff Taylor from Brevard college

Interesting topic. I would like to hear more on possible color blindness rehabilitation.

Dec. 05 2014 11:31 AM
Maya Pardo from Brevard College

As an artist, it is very interesting to hear that colors were orginally seen as an interruption of the "pure white light". I can't imagine how that time could see color in such a harmful way. I persionally like a variety of colors, so its hard to think of it in a negative way.

Dec. 05 2014 02:16 AM
Jacob Ray from Brevard College

It's so interesting to learn of all the colors we humans don't see and may not even be capable of perceiving.

Dec. 03 2014 03:08 PM

I was inspired by this episode and drew a mantis shrimp rainbow:

I wish I could see more colors on the spectrum too.

Oct. 03 2014 02:54 AM
leeo from france

someone should write a mantis shrimp orchestra or something, anyone? philip glass?

Jul. 02 2014 07:36 PM
Lisa from Atlanta, GA

Shout out to the mantis shrimp from the oatmeal:

May. 28 2014 04:03 PM
jinzhu zhu

I really like this radio show, it talks about color by doing some experiments. That’s very interesting. Actually, it’s my first to listen the English radio show. By listening the voice of the conversation, I could image how the experiment works.
Ok, let us talk some about the experiment that they did. I found this segment very colorful no pun intended. Especially, how humans see color verses dogs and most importantly the Mantis Shrimp. I also love music and how three cords of different notes can make a harmonic sound. In comparison to the mantis, I could imagine that its vision would be a combination of major and minor chords within a range of notes that would otherwise be difficult for a human to sing vocally.
I used to think that the shy should be blue. But when I was listening to the podcast, I found that the color blue doesn’t exist in nature. It’s really shock me. The color of blue of is hardest to make, I don’t know why. For a child, when her father ask that what the color of the sky. First time, she said that the sky is white. Second time, she answered that the sky is blue. But she is also very confused between blue and white, so I think that the color also depends on human’s feeling.
From this show, I know that the color is the great knowledge. In Chinese language, we have a lot of different way to describe a color. As we know, the color of red has came a representation of china. In china, the color red represent happiness and peaceful. People use their eyes to see color and use their intelligence to endow color some specific meanings. Therefore, I think the color influence human and human create color.

May. 27 2014 07:25 PM
annoyed student

This is by far the most ridiculous thing I've ever had to listen to for a class. These guys are beyond annoying with their sound effects and their choir . I'm not sure who in their right mind would willingly spend time listening to this. If you are trying to educate people, you have found the most annoying way of doing so… congratulations. please quit radio!

Mar. 09 2014 10:52 AM
michael from philadelphia, pa

I loved this episode, and the bit about the mantis shrimp is amazing. However, I just found this article which says the mantis shrimp color perception story could be a lot different. Possibly less color discrimination than we have, but a faster system:

Jan. 28 2014 01:27 PM

Does anyone know if there's a transcript for this?

Dec. 04 2013 09:28 PM
Chrisley Benton

It was interesting to find out what the perception was of the spectrum of light in the eyes of different animals. My friend has a mantis shrimp and I love the color of their bodies, but had never known that they can see so many more colors than myself. It was cool to find out that they have the most complicated visual system. Guess that makes sense as their bodies are so small but their eyes are so huge. The choir was a great touch. I was laughing through the entire podcast!

Dec. 02 2013 10:49 PM
Thomas Lane from Jappa, MD

I found this segment very colorful no pun intended. Especially, how humans see color verses dogs and most importantly the Mantis Shrimp. I also love music and how three cords of different notes can make a harmonic sound. In comparison to the mantis I could imagine that its vision would be a combination of major and minor chords within a range of notes that would otherwise be difficult for a human to sing vocally. Great job Radio Lab combining both music notes and color hues together compliments our visual and audio senses.

Nov. 16 2013 09:37 PM
evan from PA

this was mine blowing you just told science inside out by describing just the colors you told me a lot and i'm only 14 and that was an amazing description of the colors ROYGBIV science is the best THANK YOU!!!!!

Nov. 16 2013 01:39 PM
Don McKenna from Omaha, NE

Regarding the evolution the sequence of color sensing. It was mentioned that color sensing started with red then yellow and lastly blue. I did not any of your scientists talk about the fact that the colors of the rainbow are arranged on the energy spectrum as longer wavelength (red) to shorter wavelength Indigo or (ultra) violet. It is known that the atmosphere cuts out ultraviolet energy. Ultraviolet, to a photographer, manifests itself as haze; scattered light of a milky kind of density that appears to be ?? color. The Ozone layer is principal in filtering out ultraviolet. Our Ozone layer has been gradually depleted for years. What if thousands of years ago, the Ozone layer was thicker, or, in other words ultraviolet (and indigo and violet) was filtered out? Is it possible that our eyes evolved distinguishing long wavelength radiation first and shorter wavelength later? What would have aided our ancestors more in the absence of electric light, ultraviolet? or infrared? Is it possible that we once were able to see better longer into the night because we were more sensitive to the lower red spectrum and the more sensitive rods that could distinguish light and dark?

Also, you talked about the young girl Alma, who would not name the sky color, "blue". The sky is not "blue" like a bluebird or a swatch of blue in a coloring book or the crayons called "blue". It is Cyan; and then it changes from a powdery cyan in humid areas near sea level to closer to a true blue at higher elevations. It doesn't get "Blue" until later at night and in thinner atmospheres. Children are very literal and there was no discussion that the little girl noticed the difference of the color of the sky and simply had no name for a Cyan like color. Actually calling Cyan Blue is not giving distinction to the very discernible color variations in the hues of blue.

When I was a student of photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, we were tested for our color vision. I tested out "perfect" color vision being able to differentiate 256 difference colored squares ranging from the reds to the violets in the spectrum. I have noticed my color vision changes with fatigue, excitement, and due to chemicals like Cialis. I am also a meditator and in heightened states of "energy" I have seen beyond the violet spectrum seeing into the ultraviolet. It is wondrous, not to mention the sensation some experience when they perceive auras, which I have been able to do very irregularly. That is a situation where we don't have names for what we "see".

I enjoyed your program and find it one of the best on the air. I think in general, scientists make too many assumptions based on previous discovery, but as my friend the nuclear physicist says, "we can only prove what we know."

Thanks for the program. Keep up the great work!!

Sep. 11 2013 02:32 PM
NanKar from Omaha Nebraska

Fascinating show. I'm totally blind and love to sing. The choir section brought the rainbow to life for me. Thanks.

Sep. 11 2013 02:23 PM

The mantis shrimp hallelujah had me laughing out loud at work and got me a few weird looks.

Sep. 10 2013 02:54 PM
Jenny Sant'Anna from San Jose, CA

If you haven't seen this Ze Frank video about mantis shrimp, check it out! Hilarious and crazy.

Sep. 08 2013 12:02 AM
C from Long Beach CA

I love love this episode! I tell people about it all the time. Why there are comments below mine about 'spells,' I have no idea. But I do agree with the TV comment, I wish more TV was like this radio program.

Aug. 11 2013 10:48 PM

@ minute 8:56ish, podcast-- "Where is the color?" I can answer this, so listen carefully: The colors are in the bunnies. It's true. I read it on the back of an easter egg dyeing kit that came with tiny, dissolvable, dye-filled bunnies. It's profound; don't overthink it. The colors, my friends, are in the bunnies.

Jun. 10 2013 02:34 PM

The choir cracks me up! Great episode!

Apr. 09 2013 07:37 PM
philadlj from Philadelphia

Just re-listening to this for the third time...great episode. But as in previous listenings, Thomas Cronin's voice sounds very...odd throughout your discussion with him.

It's as if it had been electronically altered in some way. It's kinda hard to describe...the word "buzzy" comes to mind.

I'm curious if there were any problems with his voice recording that necessitated any kind of modification, or if he just has a voice that reacts very oddly when recorded and listened to with headphones.

Also, don't know what his problem with indigo is, I'm no scientist but ever since I was taught about the color spectrum, indigo has been ever-present!

Feb. 11 2013 04:53 PM
sandra from UK

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Jan. 04 2013 03:57 AM
lovely from UK

My Name is lovely..I never believed in Love Spells or Magics until I met this special spell caster once when i went to Africa to Execute some business..He is really powerful.The woman i wanted to marry left me 3 weeks to our weeding ceremony and my life was upside down.she was with me for 3 years and i really love her so much..she left me for another man with no reason..when i called her she never picked up my calls and she don’t want to see me around her…so,when i told the man what happened.he helped me to do some readings,and after the readings he made me to realize that the other man has done some spells over my wife and that is the reason why she left me..he told me he will help me to cast a spell that bring her back.At first i was skeptical but i just gave it a try…In 2 days,she called me herself and came to me apologizing..I cant believe she can ever come back to me again EMAIL

Jan. 04 2013 02:23 AM
Jioday from Hamburg

Isaac Newton was color blind.
When I take a prism and a piece of white paper into the sunlight,
I can make out sixteen different colors.
Indigo falls In between blurple and pue.

Dec. 31 2012 03:22 PM
Chelsea from Seattle, WA

Please tell me the name of the song at 5:33 of the colors podcast.

Aug. 21 2012 02:06 AM
L Densmore

I got a chuckle out of the reference to Goethe as a "German Romantic Poet", this is like calling Leonardo Da Vinci an Italian Painter. Goethe did foundational work in both color theory and optics....probably a little more tie to your topic than was indicated.

Aug. 18 2012 05:19 PM
Stephanie from LA

I'd like to see your musical playlist. That version of "Blue Moon" near the end was haunting.

Jul. 29 2012 10:21 PM

This show was fascinating. As a red/green color blind woman, I knew any sons I had would also be red/green color blind. What I did not know was that my son would grow up to be an artist. He has gravitated to sculpture, where color vision is less important, but the possibility that he might someday be able to have a medical procedure that would allow him to see color like everyone else is really exciting.

Jul. 28 2012 01:12 PM
Yeti from Boulder

I second the vote for a mantis shrimp ringtone, it made me laugh so hard i would call my own cell phone to hear it.

Jun. 24 2012 11:03 PM
Marni from LA

The expression, "to rip a new one" is highly offensive.

Jun. 20 2012 02:30 PM
George Kitchell from Houston, Texas

I have finally figured out why my wife and I do not see eye to eye in regards to sorting laundry.

May. 31 2012 12:40 PM
A Quantum Box from Las Vegas

All my life I've wanted to see ultraviolet and infrared. Seriously, since age five at least. The thought of being able to get some sort off gene therapy to turn me into a polychromat gave me a shiver.

May. 26 2012 01:40 PM

Can you release the mantis shrimp hallelujah as a ringtone?

May. 23 2012 10:00 PM
The Code Crimson

You totally blew my mind with this episode, as always! Why don't you have a TV show already? I would love to have seen this onscreen.

May. 23 2012 08:30 AM

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