how colour vision works

yellow

Really super article by Ana Swanson in the Washington Post about colour vision and how it works. As she explains, it is not really correct to think of the long wavelength visible light as being red. It is better, as Newton knew of course, to say that the long-wavelength light has the ability to cause the sensation of redness in us. She gives a nice visual example of how the spectrum looks to a dog, something (by coincidence) that I was only talking about in a lecture last week. As she says:

Is what I see as “blue” really the same thing as what you see as “blue”? Or have we both learned the same name for something that looks different to each of us?

Her article is really worth reading.

There is just one thing I take issue with. It may be ‘nit picking’. But she says “A green leaf, for example, reflects green wavelengths of light and absorbs everything else.”

My image, at the top of this post, shows the reflectance of a typical yellow object. At each wavelength the reflectance is between 0 and 100 per cent. But notice that it is not zero at any wavelength in the range shown (400-700nm). That means that the object reflects light at every wavelength. And it is not 100 at any wavelength meaning that it also absorbs to some extent at every wavelength. It’s just it absorbs more at the shorter wavelengths than at the longer wavelengths and it reflects more at the longer wavelengths than at the shorter ones. But notice one other remarkable thing – the yellow object reflects more light at 700nm (a wavelength we would normally associate with red) than it does at 580nm (a wavelength we might normally associate with yellow).

Yes, the reflected light does look yellow. But, the notion that a “A yellows object reflects yellow wavelengths of light” is misleading. It suggests that the yellow object only reflects, for example, the wavelengths in the spectrum we would normally think of as yellow (around 580nm) and absorbs the rest. This is just not how things are.

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