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The Perfect Yellow

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Jad and Robert wonder if maybe they could add to their color palette. Jay Neitz wondered the same thing, sort of. Take a monkey that can't see red, for example. Couldn't you just give them the red cones they were missing? So he took the human gene for red cones, figured out a way to inject it into the eyes of a group of squirrel monkeys, and he started doing vision tests. Day after a day for weeks. Until something remarkable happened.

And that got us thinking. Could you take Jay's experiment even further? Could add whole new cones to see a whole new universe of wavelenghts? According to Jay, we might not need to. Because it just so happens, there are already people walking around with an extra cone. Producer Tim Howard tracked down a real-life tetrachromat named Susan Hogan, then drove out to Pittsburgh to meet her and Jason LaCroix ...and administer a quick vision test that made it clear that who sees what is anything but black and white.

Next, Victoria Finlay introduces us to special strain of yellow goop: Gamboge. Raw gamboge It's a particular kind of tree sap, from the border area between Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand.  It takes years to collect a big enough blob to sell to paint suppliers. And in the course of those years, the sap collects a souvenirs of the things happening around it. Robert and producer Sean Cole headed to Kremer Pigments in NYC to take a look at a lump of the stuff, and Ian Garrett, the former technical director of the art supply store Winsor & Newton, tells us how the sap revealed the horrors of the Cambodian killing fields.

Bullets found in raw gamboge

Photo courtesy of Ian Garrett, Winsor & Newton.

A squirrel monkey named Dalton performing a vision test after receiving Jay Neitz's gene therapy:

Guests:

Victoria Finlay and Jay Neitz

Produced by:

Sean Cole and Tim Howard

Comments [41]

Peter Cronkleton from Lima, Peru

Having worked several years with traditional peoples that gather non-timber forest products (NTFPs) in the tropics, I just wanted to point out that the gatherers of forest resins are usually paid by weight. I would guess that the forest collectors of gamboge are simply adding old bullets to increase their income. No reason to assume anyone was hurt (unless you include the New York buyers that thought they were getting an unadulterated product).

Apr. 04 2014 01:03 PM
Maureen from NYC

Thank you so much for this report. I recognized so much of myself in Susan Hogan and so I reached out to Dr. Neitz and took the DNA test. I'm a tetrachromat! (Well, genetically as I must now be tested on the proper computer monitors to see how "functional" my genes are...)
Never underestimate your ability to enlighten people...even change people's lives. Thank you, Radiolab!

Feb. 08 2014 02:38 PM
christine oswald from usa

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Feb. 02 2014 08:31 AM
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Jan. 12 2014 09:33 AM
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Jan. 07 2014 07:46 AM
Susan from USA

Thank you

Dec. 18 2013 03:43 PM
Chrisley Benton

A friend of mine is color blind and we instantly thought of what his sight might be like if it were possible to go through the surgery, like they did with the monkeys. I'm sure many people would appreciate being able to do that. I also think that it is very interesting to know that there is a possibility that some people have the ability to see more color variation. I naturally thought that I saw all of the colors that make the world seem interesting, but as an artist I wonder how much more beautiful the world would be if I saw even more than I already do.

Dec. 02 2013 10:54 PM
Sam from Sydney, Australia

Hi I just listened to the podcast on "The fact of the matter" about the yellow rain, could it be possible that the health effects of the Gamouge pigment from the sap could have accounted for the yellow rain's health effects after the trees were blown up in a bombing?

http://www.radiolab.org/story/239470-the-fact-of-the-matter/

Nov. 14 2013 02:02 AM
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Oct. 21 2013 02:49 PM
james from usa

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Sep. 24 2013 07:17 PM
Chelsea Rose

Hello! I loved your episode! I happen to have something called synesthesia where I see color for sounds, letters, numbers as well as other things. Someone suggested a link between synesthesia and tetrachromats so I took the test and I got a perfect score. Now I'm kinda excited about learning more and if anyone is looking to study this link.

Jul. 31 2013 08:06 PM
Camille

It would be great if you displayed the four pieces of brown paper so that we see if we can see the differences, tetrachromat or not.

It would also be great if you put a small video of the Gamboge pigment turning into bright yellow when in contact with water.

I've looked for both informations on the Internet but didn't found them.
Thanks

Jun. 28 2013 03:16 PM
Lover from usa

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Apr. 11 2013 08:29 PM
Jerry Ninth

I agree with the person with the bullet theory.I noticed it when my 6th grade science teacher showed the class the pic.Kind of shocked he did't notice it.(My school is Hawbridge Charter School in Saxapahaw Alamance County)Donations Welcomed

Jan. 09 2013 07:38 PM
lovely from UK

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Jan. 04 2013 02:36 AM
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Jan. 03 2013 10:12 AM
cyd

So…is there an accurate online (or otherwise available) test to tell if you are a tetrachromat?

I'm an amateur photographer and this test would be helpful in ruling out some oddities I'm seeing in my work.

Sep. 13 2012 04:24 AM

Just to continue the MSDS discussion ... Many artist suppliers (including Winsor & Newton) still do not include the Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) content in grams per liter (g/L) on their MSDS's. In the architecture and construction industry, this resistance by art suppliers to provide such information will eventually result in the exclusion of these materials on projects that are going for LEED certification (usgbc.org). This fact is most pronounced in the historic preservation industry where efforts to restore decorative elements - which represent our cultural heritage - will fall by the wayside. In addition, artists who decide to live and work in LEED-certified buildings (AKA "green buildings") that depend on the limited use of high-VOC products to maintain their certification, will eventually have to stop using these materials as well. So, any moral conundrum that an artist may have for buying gamboge will be completely eclipsed by the moral conundrum of whether or not to sneak it into his/her artwork at the expense of being "green".

Aug. 09 2012 10:47 PM
BethMix

I thought Homer was thought to be blind! Was surprised they didn't mention this!

Aug. 08 2012 09:27 AM
jon

I too am suspicious that the bullets were shot into the small tubes of sap.

1) wouldn't the tube explode from the impact, especially if the material was viscous? I can't imagine shooting a bamboo tube full of a honey-like or resin-like material and NOT having it completely shatter, much less have the bullet stop in the middle of the tube rather than passing through. It's like the bullet had just enough kinetic energy to pierce one side of the tube but not the other.

2) some of the bullet's found look to be still in their original shape. If they had passed through one wall of the tube or (eek) through a human being, then the most certainly would have mushroomed abit or at least deformed slightly.

This sounds like a job for mythbusters.

I think the bullet's were added for weight. Something that is sold by the Kg is going to be altered to add weight.

Also I agree with the sentiments express that the hosts were wrong to try to add a moral taint to the pigment just because it is found in an area that has conflict. The conflict was not over the pigment after all.

If one were to follow this logic there could be so many more culpable commodities in our world that have bloodshed associated with them. Putting aside the obvious precious metals and gems, don't forget tea, nutmeg & anise and other spices, salt, purple dye, even fresh water in some parts of the world.

_

Aug. 02 2012 06:12 AM
Jenn Schrauben from Michigan

It didn't surprise me that the man could see the difference is the browns. I've always seen colors differently. I'm a woman so I guess I could be a tetrachromat, but I doubt it. I'm an art teacher. When an artist looks at the sky they always see the green, pinks, yellows, reds, oranges, grays, blues, and violets in the bright blue sky or a clean white table cloth. Anyone trained to work with colors would probably be able to pass the brown fabric test. I'd love to take a tetrachromat test but the internet tests don't seem accurate.

Aug. 02 2012 12:58 AM

I don't buy Jay Neitz' theory as to why most tetrachromatic women can't see this 4th primary color. We absolutely _do_ see "pure yellow" vs. "red-green yellow" all over the place. Yellow in a spectrum is pure yellow. TVs and those LCD screen than flicker by on banks are red-green yellow (made up of little red and green lights).

The issue is whether this fourth cone actually picks up yellow and not some other frequency. If your fourth cone is at yellow, you're likely to see the red-green yellow vs. pure yellow. If not, if it's too close to one of the "normal" cones, you won't be able to see much of a difference.

Jul. 27 2012 09:13 PM
Alyson from Brooklyn

I am a fashion designer and it is vital to my job to be able to see the subtle differences in shades of color. We compare color all the time to ensure that it is correct. Tetrachromacy sounds like a norm for my industry.

Jul. 06 2012 06:20 PM
Alexandra Chakeres from Boulder, CO

Just read a recent article saying they found a functional tetrachromat! Heres the article (not the original source): http://discovermagazine.com/2012/jul-aug/06-humans-with-super-human-vision/article_view?b_start:int=1&-C=

Jun. 26 2012 02:26 AM
CRYSTAL JACKSON

What better way to make some good money than to take something measured by the pound and add some weight to it. Especially if the item in question: gamboge nubbies, is not always the same shape or size. How better to lift the profit margin than to add a few bullets to the mix. They are readily available, the harvested Gamboge is sticky. It makes better sense than the prospect that the bullets somehow were flying so thick as to be lodged into the drips in a forest. That seems too far fetched even for my brain injured brain.

Jun. 25 2012 08:56 PM
Electra from Portland, OR

I agree with Marisano from Davis and Itamar from Israel, also by bringing the point that Christie from Oregon made. Just because an anomalous gene occurs on an X chromosome doesn't mean that it is ONLY seen in women or men. For example, if the color-blind (chromatophore-deficient) X-chromosome were the one being expressed of two, or if the normal one were damaged in some way, then you'd have a color blind woman.

Additionally, if a man's mother had the tetrachromatic X-chromosome, he'd have 50/50 chance to inherit that tetrachromatic gene as much as the normal gene. I think presuming that only women have that is erroneous and limiting to the research about this topic (which I think is awesome)!
I would be much more interested in knowing if the artist-friend brought along to test the brown swatches had his blood tested and showed that he not only could see the differences AND ALSO didn't have the tetrachrome gene. My current theory is that the artist and the interior designer both have the tetrachromatic gene.

Especially considering the segment about Homer's use of color.
When I studied Japanese in Japan while also teaching English, I was often surprised by the mis-match between "blue" and the supposed analog "aoi." Cultures determine the ranges of hues and tints that get categorized under a color-word. The English "blue" includes sky blue and periwinkle and aqua and royal blue and maybe even indigo. However Japanese "aoi" includes sky blue and royal blue but also leaves in their verdant new spring growth. I don't think any established native English-speaker would look at the new leaves on a tree and call them "blue."

I think that our brains are totally capable of categorizing and enhancing differences in tints and shades according to what we're informed are those colors during development. (Just like our ears tune in to different vowels and consonants as being important phonemes and are then at a disadvantage to distinguish between another culture's phonemes once adults.)

Jun. 24 2012 07:44 PM
George

Christy-- It has to do with having two X chromosomes in females. Because a male only needs one copy on his one X chromosome, if they have it, it is expressed. But for females, you may have the gene on one X chromosome, but not on the other, making you only a carrier. The likelihood then would lower because the chance of having two X chromosomes with the colorblind gene is smaller.

Jun. 23 2012 06:58 PM
Itamar from Israel

Great show! But Marisano from Davis is totally right in her criticism of Jay Neitz's hypothesis on why tetrachromats might not be using all 4 receptors -- his hypothesis made me really doubt his credibility as a scientist. Our 3 receptors don't actually respond to just 1 exact color each, rather they each have a response curve so there's a wavelength they respond to the most but they actually respond to light from a broad range of wavelengths. This 4th receptor must also have some spectrum that it is responsive to, and by definition it's response curve is different than the other 3 receptors, so if it's in the retina and working then it's constantly responding to most light that a tetrachromat sees.

Jun. 20 2012 09:11 AM
Tori Hauser from Phoenix, AZ

As a female graphic designer I deal with colors all day, every day. I have often thought I was more aware of colors than most, due to practice, but to actually be able to say I can literally see 100 million more colors, that's something I'm going to have to ad to my resume!

Jun. 18 2012 04:40 PM
Marisano from Davis, California

I found Jay Neitz's hypothesis for why many women with a gene allowing tetrachromacy respond behaviorally as trichromats completely uncompelling. First of all, just because TV and printed materials do not explicitly cater to tetrachromats does not mean that the artificial world is devoid of such signals. Trichromats and dichromats are likely making color choice 'errors' all the time, such that supposedly matching shoes and/or socks are actually not always so, and "smooth" gradations of color may have jarring inconsistencies therein. Finally, a great many of the colors that a tetrachromat could see - and and an infinite number more - should be present in the natural world (which could render movies and TV disappointingly dull). Therefore there should be no reason for such sensitivity to atrophy, especially since it hasn't seemed to have done so in lab populations of butterflies and mantis shrimp, for example. More likely there's some kind of co/dominance effect occurring between some of the allelic variations or the enhanced photoreceptors aren't being expressed in the (right part of the) retina.

Too bad the color-loving male control wasn't tested for the tetrachromacy gene. Maybe he has a chromosomal abnormality.

Jun. 07 2012 06:07 AM
ignominia from Tuscany- Italy

Re Gamboge: I found it a bit too much to question Mr Garrett whether he felt morally responsible for what happened decades ago in a patch of land where gamboge was harvested. Do you ever think that way about rubber, gold, bananas, or any substance coming from impoverished countries, and possibly areas where some violence -one being exploitation- has certainly occurred in recent times? I love the scientific aspect of your program but I think moralizing could be left out.

Jun. 06 2012 06:00 AM
Adam from Washington D.C.

I really enjoyed this episode, but I found the segment about gamboge to be a bit strange. Essentially equating gamboge to blood diamonds or conflict minerals simply because of its proximity to violence strikes me as shallow and somewhat irresponsible. The bullets were presumably not fired into the grove because of the dye, but rather the trees simply happen to grow in an area that has had issues with violence for decades. Violence that would exist with or without the dye.
To imply that the dye itself now carries some sort of taint due to the people who used the area for target practice or even violent acts is to diminish the value of all art or creative endeavors created in violent places and times. Some of the greatest art in human history has been in response to some of the worst acts, but we would never call the morality of that art into question simply because it reminds us of those acts. In fact, often those reminders add value to the intrinsic beauty of the art itself.
It seems more valid to point out the dichotomy of human nature that allows such creative and destructive natures to exist side-by-side, rather than to try to force some sort of perceived moral flaw into the gamboge itself. As mentioned in previous comments, gamboge has its own, actual problems, which do in fact warrant discussion.

Jun. 04 2012 02:31 PM
Christy from Portland, OR

My aunt is color blind, as was my grandfather. I found it interesting that the show kept referring to color blindness in human males, as if females are not affected by color blindness. I know that it's rare for females, but it is possible. Why is it more rare though? Does it have to do with that extra chromosome?

May. 31 2012 05:08 PM
Chas. Owens

Gamboge is toxic and sale requires proof of profession. When looking for information about substances that might be dangerous, the key is the initialism MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Material_safety_data_sheet). MSDSes list what the dangers of a substance are and how to go about cleaning up or administering aid to exposed people. Luckily, in the USA, OSHA requires companies to have quickly searchable copies of the MSDSes available for all substances in a work place. Because of this it is often easy to find the MSDS for a given substance. You can find an MSDS for Gamboge here: http://www.kremerpigments.com/shopus/PublishedFiles/37050MSDS.pdf Basically Do not swallow it or inhale its dust and do not dispose of it in the sink (it is water soluble). Just for fun, here is an MSDS for water: http://www.chem.tamu.edu/class/majors/msdsfiles/msdswater.htm

May. 29 2012 01:30 PM
Kris from Cambridge, UK

Unfortunately, the bit about how dangerous the gamboge sap is got a bit garbled in my listening--particularly since the story goes straight into the bullets found in the sample. I can't make out why Finlay said it was dangerous. But there is a toxicity issue that seems to be involved (since there were bathroom breaks built into the pigment workers' day, as stated right after). Any chance of getting a transcript of that section, or some clarification? It seems like there are a number of trees used, and all sorts of uses (including foodstuffs and flavoring agents!) and potential toxicities involved in those trees, so finding out exactly what Finlay was distressed about (unless it was the bullets?) would be great.

May. 27 2012 02:27 PM
DJ from Atlanta, GA

My family and I are huge fans of this show. Our 8 year old son, in particular, looks forward to road trips conducted to the accompaniment of radiolab shows.

Now, because I expect my son to wind up at this page every now and then, I wanted to point out that, in the blurb for this episode, the word "pallet" is incorrectly used. I believe what was wanted was the word "palette".

Cheers - keep on trucking.

May. 26 2012 12:10 PM
Stefan Marjoram from UK

Fascinating series. One thing that struck me though - when the chap said "people who paint don't tend to start wars" - Hitler did. Though he probably gave up the painting so that he could devote more time to the warmongering.

May. 25 2012 10:31 AM
Nathan from Los Angeles

So after listening to this segment, I was trying to google around to see what this color of yellow actually looked like. The problem? I didn't know how to spell the word "Gamboge", and it's a weird enough/French enough word that instead I found myself at the word "Gamahuche". It turns out this instead is a very different word with a very different meaning...

May. 24 2012 06:19 PM

Yeah, seriously, why ask a morally loaded question in sotto voce that doesn't make any sense? "There's violence in this color." "It could have been attached to this bloodshed." What moral content do these questions even have? This is just empty dramatizing.

May. 23 2012 06:22 AM
Ken

I'm a little unclear on what the point was in taking this guy to task for buying/selling the sap from Cambodia. It's not like violence was somehow a direct part of the trade or production of it (as far as I could tell from the story). Yes it shared a close proximity with these horrible events, and caught a few bullets. But it's not analogous to, say, blood diamonds.

May. 22 2012 09:04 PM
bob minder

Arnold Lobel wrote a picture book called THE GREAT BLUENESS! Check it out. Always wondered what it must have been like for those first folk who began evolving color vision... if they were sent to the local Homo habilis mental institute. Your treatment of Susan Hogan was far more humane or should I say Homo sapien sapien like.

May. 22 2012 10:53 AM

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