How Humanity’s Obsession With Color Has Shaped Our Modern World

We certainly couldn’t strike that deal with, let’s say a bee, because first of all, it’s hard to strike deals with a bee, but also because …

[MC and LG laugh.]

AR: I could tell this metaphor was going off the rails, but it was too late, but also because the-

LG: I think we need to invite to bee on the podcast just to make sure that we express their opinion too.

AR: Much better guest than me, I know. Because the three photoreceptors in a bee are tuned to different peak wavelengths, different spectra, than the three photoreceptors are. So they see way down into the ultraviolet in ways that we don’t. So the bee visible spectrum or the bird visible spectrum, or the snake visible spectrum or whatever, is a different visible spectrum than the one that we talk about. All that stuff really makes it real weird, if you really start to internalize this, like, if you, for example, just hypothetically work on a book about this for a few years, and then you go outside for a walk. You really start walking around very stoned very quickly. You’re like, whoa, that color is not really there is it. That’s just a surface. I’m just looking at photons, bouncing off a surface.

MC: It’s real weird. All right. We need to take a quick break and we will be right back with Adam Rogers talking about color, and it’s going to get weird.

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MC: Welcome back, our guest today is our colleague WIRED senior correspondent, Adam Rogers. Adam has just written a book that has recently been published called Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern. Adam, as we’ve been discussing, humans have been obsessed with color ever since like long before we ever had Photoshop and Pantone swatches. But even after all that time, we still don’t completely understand all the ways that color affects our brains. Since we have you on the show, I think we are obligated to ask you about The Dress.

AR: When that happened 2015, I guess, and it started to spread around the internet. I felt like, ah, another meme, whatever. And then the then executive editor Rob Capps came over and plopped down next to me where I was sitting. Said, “You see this dress thing?” I was like, “I know it’s ridiculous. Right?” And he’s like, yeah, “I know, I can’t believe it.” I said, “I mean, it’s obviously blue.” And he looked at me and he’s eyes froze. And his face went and he went, “It’s white.” And I went, “Oh, crap.”

At that insight, I realized like, oh, my God, I’m four hours late. Like, this is huge. And I’m four hours late. And at that moment, Joe Brown, who was editing the website, then Joe came running across like, no kidding, running, going, like, with his finger out toward the science desk. And just all I did was look up, shout it out to him, “We’re on it.” I started making calls. And the reason I started making calls is that I had, before I came to WIRED, when I was on a fellowship at MIT for science writers, and I had spent most of that fellowship, obsessed with color and how people see color and what pigments were and how the chemistry and science and neuroscience work.

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