This week on Gadget Lab, we talk with WIRED senior correspondent Adam Rogers about his new book, Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern, and the wild ways color affects our brains.
You can find Adam’s book, Full Spectrum, here. Read an excerpt from Adam’s book about how Pixar uses color to hack your brain on WIRED. Read Adam’s story about the science of The Dress here. Also check out Proof, Adam’s book about the science of booze. Read Lauren’s story about the internet and memories.
Adam recommends the show Beforeigners on HBO Max. Lauren recommends fly fishing. Mike recommends the memoir Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron.
Adam Rogers can be found on Twitter @jetjocko. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.
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Michael Calore: Lauren.
Lauren Goode: Mike.
MC: Lauren, do you remember The Dress, the one that was either blue and black or white and gold?
LG: Who could forget The Dress? And I think I saw it as blue and black. What about you?
MC: I saw it as white and gold.
MC: Yeah. I know. Well, you know what? It was one of the most popular articles in WIRED history and probably one of the most indelible moments in internet history. And it is now partially spawned a book that is entirely about color that is written by today’s guest. So let’s talk about it.
[Gadget Lab intro theme music plays]
MC: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED.
LG: And I’m Lauren Goode. I’m a senior writer at WIRED.
MC: We’re also joined today by WIRED senior correspondent Adam Rogers. Adam, welcome back to the show.
Adam Rogers: Thank you. I’m always glad to be here with fellow seniors.
MC: That’s us. Last time we had you on was during the Mars mission to talk about the red planet. Today we’re just going to talk about red, and blue and green and yellow and white and black, and all the other things. We are talking about color because Adam, our guest, you just published a book called Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern. It’s about how we perceive color in the world around us and how that perception has led to important societal shifts in human history.
In the second part of the show, we’re going to talk about some of the mysteries of color science, which means that, yes, we are going to talk about The Dress, but first we want to start with the basics. Adam, you make the case in your book that the technological advancements made by humans in an effort to understand and re-create colors have actually driven whole civilizations. So please, summarize for us now, the bulk of human history.
AR: Yeah. You have no idea how hard that was to do in just a few hundred pages. Right. Yes, I do make that case. That was very much more cleanly put than I feel like I’ve been able to do it because it’s such a complicated issue. Because, of course, when we talk about color, we’re actually talking about a bunch of different things. There’s like the objective … “Objective,” I’m making scare quotes with my fingers. It’s hard to see that in an audio medium, but there’s the physics of it. There’s photons screaming from the sun, and photons bouncing off of stuff is the most simplistic way to think about what color is, or wavelengths of light, because photons have energy levels that are also wavelengths. So that’s confusing already, but they basically do the same thing.
And then there’s also the technology of it, the surfaces that human beings make. We take things from the natural world and we grind them up or we do tech-scale chemistry on them in bio and physics. And we make stuff, and those things have colors, and we can apply those colors. And then there’s the color that our eyes and brains perceive and turn into something that we can have cognition about. And those are all related, overlapping but slightly different things, but it is the pursuit of new ways to make many humans eyes and brains perceive colors in a way that they haven’t before.
That has driven things as varied as, for example, coming up with workshops in tens of thousands of years old. Archeological sites in caves, in South Africa to where they found abalone shells and stones that were used to grind ochre and mix it with gooey stuff like fat and blood to make the kinds of paints that you would apply to a cave wall, let’s say, that you’d see tens of thousands of years later, or driving the trade on the silk road, for example.
So for 1,000 years of human history, most of the action was between these two poles, these two trade centers in the Abbasid empire, and what we think of as the Arab world now, and basically Peking or Beijing. And that trade was driven by stuff like spices and fabrics to silk textiles, but also by ceramics and porcelain and by the colors that those two civilizations could apply and use on those things. And for a very significant amount of time, the ability to get very, very high-quality, beautiful white porcelain, or very-high-quality, beautiful green porcelain, which were made in two different parts of China, was one of the things that drove that trade.
That’s what people wanted. That was like the killer herb, because they wanted it to drink the tea, which was the new fashionable thing at the time. And that happens again and again is this the pursuit of things that have color becomes so driving that it drives economies, which then drives the pursuit of finding new colors, which then drives the science to try to understand how those new colors can be perceived and how they’re made. And then the cycle starts over again.
MC: Yeah. I remember the first red iPhone. Everybody went bonkers for it.
AR: That happens. And the relationship between color and industrial design is a really profound one, one that I didn’t understand, well, until I started reporting the book, but a lot of the famous name, industrial designers who we think of actually came out of the world of Broadway design in the early 20th century, that the drive to new engineering and new stuff that people could buy, like the engineers couldn’t keep up with a reason to buy a new refrigerator every year, a new car every year, a new locomotive every year, whatever.
But the industrial designers came in with training from Broadway, where they were starting to use electrified colored lights for the first time and said, “We could just make them different colors,” and then people are going to want them and it really drove a ton of the movement away from cars being any color you want, except black, for example, there were others, but black was the fastest drying paint that Ford could get ahold of. But when General Motors changed their technology for making paints and can provide a bunch of different colors, that shifted the power balance in the automotive industry in the early 20th century.
LG: That’s fascinating. Adam, this is the part where I throw a series of like kindergarten-level questions at you, because I like when we talk about colors it’s impossible not to say things like, “But why is the sky blue?” So my question for you is who first came up with the names of colors? Why do we actually call blue blue?
AR: You know what’s beautiful about the way that you constructed that as a kindergarten-level question. And in fact, that question makes linguists and cognitive scientists and neuroscientists and color scientists absolutely insane. It has driven so much research over, certainly depending on how you think about this, either 100 years or 5,000 years of human history. Why do we call that color that color when you call it that color? Are you seeing the same thing as I’m seeing when I call it, or why do we have different names for that color?
AR: So I’ll tell you a weird story from the advanced level of that instead of answering the kindergarten one of that. OK, well, what you’re asking about are what are called in the parlance of the field “basic color terms.” Those are the words that only mean the color. So you use blue. Blue turns out to be hideously complicated. Thank you very much. So you don’t mean turquoise for example …
LG: I thought I was giving you like, right, I was like, oh, I’m going to go with like magenta or chartreuse, but then I’ll just stick with the easy stuff, well …
AR: Yeah. Oh, chartreuse is great. Chartreuse is a great one to use because chartreuse, this is named after this alcohol, this booze that the monks used to make. It was one of the first, like, distilled spirits mixed with botanicals. So the color chartreuse comes from the stuff chartreuse. Its mean chart house because that’s where they distilled and made the stuff. And there’s actually two of them. There’s the green chartreuse and the yellow chartreuse.
That means like a yellow, green color. So if I say chartreuse, that’s a color, but it’s not a basic color term because I’m talking about the color of the thing, which is confusing because there’s a green one and a yellow one, that’s fine. Green-yellow, yellow-green, there used to be two crayons in the big 128 pack, yellow-green and green-yellow, always confused me. There’s also blue-green and green-blue … Anyway.
But if I say yellow or green, those mean themselves to you and me. Now, whether we mean the same thing, we almost certainly don’t. If I say yellow, if I say, imagine your perfect yellow, if I imagine a yellow and you imagine a yellow, they’re probably very close together, but just because of the way the eye and the brain works. If I say, imagine a green, if I ask you to imagine a green and I imagine green, they’re actually going to be like 50 nanometers apart.
If you’re measuring by wave, just because of the way the brain works, it’s super weird, but different languages have different words for these colors. And in fact, there’s a lot of famous research that tries to go back and go to people who are native speakers of different languages and ask them what colors they see, because they’re trying to understand something called, well, trying to understand a lot of things, but one of the things is linguistic relativism. The idea that if you don’t have a word for something, can you actually think about it? Can you imagine it? And for hundreds of years, philosophers and scientists have used color as the example for whether you can or can’t think about it. Philosopher David Hume talked about the missing shade of blue. For example, whether people could imagine a color of blue that they hadn’t seen before. So here’s the weird experiment. That was a lot of teeing up, sorry.
English has one basic color term for blue: blue. Russian has two basic blues, has basic color terms. One is what we would call light blue. And one is what we would call dark blue. I can’t really pronounce them: siniy and goluboy. I don’t speak Russian. I probably pronounced that wrong, but so we have a basic blue; they have two basic blues. If you show native speakers, both languages, if you do a triangle test, so you show them two of one of those, of a light blue or dark blue, and then you bring in a third colored tile or whatever. And you’re supposed to say, if you’re the subject, does it match or does it not match. So it’s two light blues. You bring in another blue. If it’s likely you say it matches, if it’s dark blue, you say it doesn’t match. In one experiment. Native Russian speakers could do that faster than native English speakers. The idea being that somehow cognitively, they were processing the color faster. That’s his hypothesis, and that was not the biggest study in it, but it does give a sense of like the kind of thing they tried to figure out the language of color.
So you asked a kindergarten question and I gave you an incomplete PhD of an answer. I apologize.
LG: No. But I mean, who were actually the first people to say, this is how we’re going to name a color?
AR: So there were a couple. So there were a couple of researchers in the middle of the 20th century who realized that some languages had fewer basic color terms than others. Berlin and Kay were the two researchers. And they tried a couple of different sets of experiments, where they went out and tried to figure out which languages had more or fewer colors. And for a while they thought they had a pattern. For a while they thought it looks like every language starts out with a white and a black.
And then if it has another color term, the next color that they name is a red. And then if it has those, the next color they name is like a red. And the next one they name is a green. And they thought they’d found this pattern in languages, but it turned out to be, like, all these things much more complicated than that. That the things that they were naming turned out to be more categorical rather than basic color terms, it looked more like cultures. The first things they do is they talk about dark and light.
And it means that actually the divide in more recent research looks a little bit more like interestingly, what we would say, warm colors and cool colors, which is more of an artist’s determination because the relationship between color and temperature is actually as confusing as all these other relationships. But language is actually do apparently make a an information theoretic distinction between how much information they can get across? How quickly with a red, turns out to be easier to get across than the blues do, which suggests that the blues and the greens, the cooler colors evolve later using the word evolve when it comes to languages is a really fraught term.
But that’s essentially the idea is that language has developed color terms as the language itself develops, probably having to deal with which colors they need to name. What’s in the environment? What’s more salient? How are people living? What’s around them? What do you have to give a name to talk to people? So the connection between color and language is really, really intimate.
LG: Wow. This is you’re blowing my mind because even just this basic idea that there are certain colors that are named after pre-existing objects or objects in nature, like lilac, as an example, is a fundamentally, totally different approach to naming a then having a basic or primary color.
AR: Yeah. It’s wild, isn’t it?
MC: And it also says a lot about the subjectivity of color, because you’re dealing with things that are in one sense, objective, like we all have rods and cones, and most of us perceive color in the same way. But then that there are people who have colorblindness and they’re different kinds of colorblindness men and women may perceive colors in different ways. And all of that is mixed up with objective research about how these things reflect into our eyeballs.
AR: Sure. So you can have a you can have a wavelength of light that you and I could agree on what the wavelength was. We could agree that it was 480 nanometers, but then we have to sort of make a deal with each other to call that blue. And especially, we make that deal with each other as human beings with an assumption of a certain definition of color, normal vision, but we couldn’t strike that deal with most other primates because they don’t see those colors the same way that we do.
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.
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.
So I had a couple of people who I could call who took my call. And that day was a weird day because what it coughed up was on the screens that we all look at. These emissive screens that are made of little, teeny, tiny points of light, red, green, and blue light, and sometimes a white light also either behind them or next to them that managed to create not all the possible colors, a human being can see, certainly not in 2015 when the gamut wasn’t as good. But many of the colors that human beings can see emitting them as light, not reflected, not subtractive pigments, but an admissive surface, showed this picture of a dress that became the super unusual thing, which is a bi-modal color illusion.
So, illusions are, and you look at those in kids’ books and there’s those ones that are like the rabbit or the duck, whereas the cube forward or back, those kinds of things. And we call those bimodal because they have two different forms. People see them two different ways, but usually with a bimodal illusion of form your brain switches back and forth. And the way that the eye and the brain perceive form and color are related to each other, they’re overlapping. And they talk to each other, but they’re semi separate systems.
They’re overlapping, but separate systems. So this was this was a bimodal illusions of color at the time were thought to be really rare. Now there’ve been a lot of research of people working on color illusions. So you see them on Twitter all the time, and they’re really fun, but they were rarer. And once your brain, it seemed chose, which one chose the blue or chose the white. You just couldn’t see the other one, it just locked off and it became impossible to understand the person sitting next to you, who was saying, it was the other color where you would just go, well, that’s not possible.
You were seeing something that’s not there. And they thought the same thing about you. Which I would argue why that became such a big deal. It was one of those moments where you could just broke, no compromise. And nobody understood why. And after a time that that faded as a thing that people cared about on the internet as these things do, but in the world of color science, in neuroscience and in neurophysiology, it really flipped them out because they thought they’d understood a specific trait, a specific thing that the brain does called color constancy, which is the ability to see an object is having the same color, even when it’s under different colored light, different illumination.
So the best example I can think of that is somebody shows you an egg picture of an egg, but it’s under a red light, under a heat lamp or something. Your brain does not go, Ooh, red egg. You go-
MC: Your go, white egg under red light.
AR: You subtract the illuminance from the object.
AR: And in this case, in the case of The Dress, what looked like it was going on there was because it was like in bluish, but also in shadow. But there were also some other light cues around it. If your brain thought that this was a picture that had been taken of an object late in the day in shadow, then you thought, oh, that’s a white dress. That’s in the shade. But if you thought it was a picture taken under the hot Newton’s sun in the middle of the day, when the color of light around us, all of the things being equal, which they never are, because this is color, it’s super complicated. Is a bright white, bright, white-ish light-
LG: Right. Washed out. Yeah.
AR: Right. Then you thought, oh, well, that’s a blue dress under white light.
AR: And then your brain mapped all the other colors to those things. So it’s like doing the thing that white balance is if you’re using a digital camera. But it breaks in this context, it just with The Dress, it just broke. And researchers thought that they had a pretty good handle of what computation the brain was doing to do color constancy. And this just showed them they had no idea. That they’d been wrong all along. And so they went off and did for years of research, trying to understand, including one researcher I talked to who bought the actual dress, the real thing, and did a bunch of experiments with people coming in and looking at it under different lights and seeing if she could adjust how they would perceive what colors they saw.
It turns out to not be bimodal it all, you can see it as all kinds of different colors of changing the color of light. Because it’s a shiny, weird viscous fabric. It would change drastically depending on what’s her light she put it underneath. And it was the research that for her and a lot of other people, when I would talk to them about what had happened and I would get to the end of this and I would say, “But just to be clear, it’s a blue dress though. Right?” And they would basically say the equivalent of like, “Oh, you sweet summer child thinking that there’s any such thing as an objective color. No it’s whatever color you see under whatever light it is. There is no dress. The secret is, there is no dress.”
LG: Adam, your egg example reminds me of the time a couple of years ago when I was writing about this new countertop oven and I think it was made of some aluminum. So it’s exterior were silver, but our WIRED photographer decided when she took it in studio to use these different colored gels. And she used some, I think it was a pink gel or something like that, that gave the countertop of in this cast, this pink cast, which like we thought looked cool. Like we put it in the story and we were like, all right, cool. It’s like artsy. The company did not think it looked cool because it was a kitchen appliance.
AR: Oh no.
LG: And I think that they were concerned that it was going to look like they had made a pink countertop oven that maybe it would be marketed to women. And so then we ended up getting an email and maybe it was angry and then we were racing to take that photo down and correct it. But yeah definitely one of those moments of like, oh, yeah, just like a slight gel can actually make a huge difference in what a product looks like in photos.
MC: And how it’s perceived, right? And like what the intention of it is perceived to be-
AR: For sure.
AR: And it’s so weird too, you bring up pink and it’s association like present day Western culture with femininity, but that’s new. That’s not even 100 years old. Pink used to be a macho color in Western culture-
MC: It still is in Italy.
AR: There you go.
LG: Right. Or maybe Nantucket.
[AR and MC laugh]
LG: OK. So Adam, let’s talk about color and emotions because one of the things you write about in the book … And I have to say, I also have like briefly reported on in the past when I did this video about Dolby labs, but you go much, much more in depth about this. Is this idea that Pixar has used certain colors in its animated films to evoke certain emotions. So people probably know when they watch a Pixar film, they’re either laughing or crying or they’re feeling something. But it turns out that a lot of that is actually quite intentional. Talk about this.
AR: Right. Well, to an extent, once I started talking about the idea that Pixar had this very careful use of color scene on scene that they would map with great precision to build the virtual environments that they work in using light and color to evoke whatever that moment was supposed to evoke. But then I started thinking about it. I was like, well, yeah, you know what that is? Is that’s movie making. Hi.
LG: It’s entertainment.
AR: Yeah. I mean, that’s how you do that. If what you’re doing in a movie, essentially, this is what I mean, where it gets weird is like you you’re like, well, geez, all a movie really is. It’s just colors moving on a screen. Oh, crap. Like that’s, oh, can’t watch movies anymore. They’re just colors. But yes, because Pixar is filming in these environments over which they have complete control, not only of the colors and the light, but really complete control of the physics, like the essential physics of a Pixar universe.
They can tell it to be whatever they want. And so what that has meant is that given access to very, very high quality ultra high resolution, ultra wide color gamut very high dynamic range, which is the blackest blacks to the whitest whites. These are all the ways that you can describe a color space, a map of all the possible colors, because they’re showing some of their movies like when they were first working on inside out, which is the one with all the emotions inside the kid’s head. When they’re first working on that Cineplex is we’re just starting to get Dolby cinema.
And Dolby cinema is basically using six lasers to make the primary colors that it’s beaming onto the screens. And they were using those to to make very, very intense color experiences that the folks Adobe, who you mentioned Lauren had been studying for quite a while, really trying to understand color and how color and dynamic range would change people’s emotional states. And I think, this is the part where people go like, oh, so like pink relaxes you and blue is more trustworthy, and red is angry.
And it’s not that the connection’s not like that it’s there. It’s not a one-to-one emotional valence to color thing. And those change according to culture and your own background and stuff. But it is like if you sit in front of the setup, they have Adobe, I know Lauren seen this too, where they put the EEG cap on you and then they’re monitoring your infrared temperature changes. And they’re monitoring your the gases that your ex exhaling because that changes with emotional state. And they just using sound and these incredible screens that they have access to, they can really change your emotional caliber, like how emotionally, how intensely you were feeling you’re experiencing the thing that you’re seeing.
And Pixar definitely plays with a lot of that. And experimental, I mean, they’ll talk about saying that what they really like to try is using these hyperintense hyper bright colors to induce like after images and after effects in the eye and in the brain, which is one of the things happens. If you look at a bright light you’ll and you look away, you’ll see the compliment of the color of that light. If you look at a bright red light, you look away, you’ll see green. And so they were talking about using a tap, like a really, really bright color in one scene, and then just dropping it, like an anvil at the end of the scene so that the whole audience in the next scene would see the other color in the next scene.
And so the color wouldn’t really be there, “Really” is in quotes, “be” is in quotes and “there” is in quotes. The color wouldn’t be projected at them by the lasers or reflected off the screen. It would just be in the audience’s head, but it would still be the color, which is weird.
LG: That’s pretty wild.
MC: That’s some psychedelic technology right there.
AR: That’s right.
MC: See, the whole time, I always thought that my emotional response to the movie was directly correlated with whether or not Benicio del Toro was in it. But what you’re telling me is that it’s actually what the colors are on the screen.
AR: Is that aversive or attractive? I don’t know. Yeah, that’s true. Benicio-
LG: I love Benicio del Toro.
AR: Yeah. So there we go
MC: So I have another question about objectivity. What is objectively the best color for wine? Is it white, red, green, orange-
LG: You’re combining all of Adam’s expertise.
AR: That’s a troll question.
LG: Yeah. It’s a trick question.
AR: I know. Great. There’s actually are places of overlap in the two books. I wrote this book Proof: The Science of Booze, it’s called Proof. It’s about the science of booze. I wrote that book.
MC: The thing that made you the New York Times bestselling author.
AR: That’s the one. That was it back then. The overlap between those two books, other than I get obsessed with stuff is what a sensory experiences. It’s what happens when the imperfect meat sensors that stud our body and our heads transduce signal from outside that into something we can deal with in our brains. And so there’s a chapter on smell and taste and the booze book, and then the color book, essentially, all of that, again like in the case of wine or any other or booze, there are actual molecules that you smell and taste that proceed by the tongue proceed by the nasal epithelium, just underneath your eyes, behind your nose.
And those are real things and they get changed into, or they are transduced into signals that we perceive. And so like, you can do experiments with wine. There’s a famous one on wine where if you don’t show people what color wine it is, you show it to them in a opaque glass, or underneath weird color light or something like that. That depending on what other clues you give them, they will taste it either as having all of the characteristics of a white, fruity, light floral, dried fruit, apricots-
AR: Tropical fruit, mineral. And then you can flip them and they’ll taste the exact same thing. And they’ll start talking about is tasting a blackberries and dried figs. And all the other the red wine color words because the signal that we get from the way the wine looks has a huge impact on how we taste it, how we smell it. Now we taste it. And because of that with wine, especially it was pretty easy to incept people with wine. Like when you go to a wine tasting and they want to give you the tasting notes, I would say like, don’t let them give you the notes before you taste it. You taste it first, see how you’re reacting to it.
What are you tasting it? What do you like it? Do you not like it? What flavors do you taste? Is that fun? Then let them tell you what the flavor notes are, because otherwise they’ll just incept you with the notes. They say, Blackberry, you’re going to taste the Blackberry, whether it’s there or not, again, “there”. So is the question then, I guess, is that true with color too, color by itself, I suppose we can all think of things that we associate the specific color with a specific object and the emotional valence of the object. Ferrari red, I guess, or British racing green for cars has a certain like British racing green is not fast. There’s nothing fast about that color. And yet it’s a race car color.
MC: Fender, the musical instrument company, has a color called Lake Placid blue, which is like this beautiful baby blue. And just like, you just make guitar collectors drool.
AR: Yeah. It makes it sound better. Right?
MC: Yeah. And it ages over time because they use like these weird lacquers back in the 1950s and ’60s, nitrocellulose lacquers that age and they crack and they yellow and that changing of the color also makes the instrument more desirable because it denotes age.
AR: Right. So there’s an experiment, not an experiment. I’ll go fast on this, but it’s in the book too, but the parts of the book. Harvard had in its collection of art, some Mark Rothko’s big epic Mark Rothko, modern painter did big fields of color luminosity and emotional quality. And you’re supposed to get really deep inside them and feel what the color is showing you. Rothko painted three of these designed to be installed in a room at Harvard. They got a lot of damage sunlight and other damage. People were in the room all the time. They were like cigarette burns, stuff like that, the colors faded.
And so the art restore lab at Harvard at one of the universities that wanting to bring them back, but the things that they would ordinarily do to restore them wouldn’t work. So a lot of times what you do is you’ll take the varnish off of a painting and put a new varnish on. You don’t want to disturb what the actual intent and act of the painters were. But in this case, Rothko hadn’t used a varnish because he was trying to get a specific effect. And he liked to mix his own pigments. He’d use some pigments that turned out to be particularly vulnerable to ultraviolet light. Like you get out of sunlight, all kinds of bad stuff happens.
So instead of doing anything to the surface of the painting itself, what these researchers did, the art restorers and some physicists and computer scientists figured out using samples of other paintings and other data points, what color they could shine on the different parts of the paintings that when added to the color that was already there would then look like what Rothko had intended. So they were using digital projectors to intentionally do what The Dress had done accidentally, to intentionally change the color of light change the color of the painting when you looked at it, which raises all kinds of philosophical questions, because you go, well, is that really what it looked like?
Well, what does it mean to ask what a painting really looked like? Is this still the painting? The Rothko? What happened to the Rothko? You have the light mask that you cast onto it, and then you’ve got this fourth thing. That’s what happens when you project this light onto the Rothko that makes it look kind of like, not entirely, but almost entirely like the first Rothko. And so where’s the authentic art there, where the art becomes the collaboration? I think. And that the most fun thing about that, I think for me is that people used to go, it was only the display for a while. But when they were on display, people would go specifically, New Yorker wrote a short article about this.
People would go specifically to the gallery at 4:00 p.m. because that’s when they turned the projectors off. So you could go and you could see what it looked like with the light on it and say, that’s pretty much like what Rothko wanted to do here. And then they turn it off. So you could see what was there now. So you could see two different versions and see what the change was because people wanted to respond to both.
MC: All right. Well, thanks for this discussion, Adam. It’s it’s pretty wild. The book is called Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern, written by our guest, Adam Rogers. We will be right back with our recommendations.
MC: All right, Adam, as our guests, you get to go first. What is your recommendation for our audience?
AR: Well, I have two, if that’s all right-
AR: One of them, I just wrote this book.
MC: What, you did?
AR: It’s called Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern. It’s available where books are sold. I would love it if people who were interested in such stuff would like to go buy it. But here’s the other one. If you’re not into that, I’ll give you a science fiction-y one. We have HBO Max at home. HBO Max, despite all kinds of weird business stuff going on in Hollywood with the companies that own it and merge and whatever, I think HBO Max is a great streaming service because it has this incredible back catalog and all these weird shows that HBO makes in Europe and in Spanish speaking world, including a show I’ve now found out from 2019 called Beforeigners.
It’s from Norway. And this premise of the show is that all of a sudden, for reasons that either nobody knows, or they haven’t figured out yet on the show, as far as I’ve watched. People from stone age, Norway, Viking era Norway, and the 19th century start appearing in the waters off of Norway. And then they have to get, brought into society, like 19th century people. Yeah. And so they’re there just from these three time periods. And then they jumped five years later and all of the Viking people have an organized crime network because a lot of them are super bad asses.
And the 19th century people were all like still dressing, like … Because they’re all from other cultures. So they bring their other cultures that you can go get meat at the bars and you can … There’s now there’s opium dens because that’s what those people wanted. And they’re trying … It’s all this parable for a multicultural society of course, but it’s across time. And then, because it’s a TV show, there’s a murder mystery. And it’s really pretty delightful.
MC: That’s wild. What’s the tone of the show? Is it absurd, or fun, or semi-serious?
AR: They have enough space where there’s a little of both. It’s definitely a serious mystery and there’s some new drugs involved. And the society has really suffered a lot of problems and is on the verge of collapse in some respects, but also there’s the cultural misunderstandings born out of being a newcomer to a new place. And there’s two leads, a detective and his new partner. And the thing he doesn’t know about his new partner is that he knows she’s from, they’re not allowed to use the word Viking anymore because that’s culturally insensitive and they don’t like that, but she was a shield maiden.
So he doesn’t know that she’s actually basically wonder woman. And she’s keeping that a secret because it scares people, but she’s got a whole other history with her super violent past that she’s dealing with. And it’s either played for laughs or she just knows how to beat people up.
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AR: Yeah. That’s great.
MC: Oh, Lauren top that.
LG: I mean, I can’t. I just don’t know what to say. I don’t really have good recommendation this week. Last week I recommended ice cream and now I think maybe I just am going to move to the country because I think the only interesting thing I’ve done this week is I had my first fly fishing lesson. So I recommend fly fishing or at least taking a lesson to try to learn how to do it. It was really fun. So one of my brothers taught me and I greatly enjoyed it. So that’s my recommendation.
MC: Did you catch anything?
LG: I didn’t catch anything. We were there for probably like two and a half hours or so. And the trout were biting, but I’m not biting what I was throwing at them. And then that night I had a dream that I caught something. And so that’s how I know, like when I learn new things, I really run them through my brain a lot. I don’t stop thinking about them after I’ve had a lesson for something or I’m in the process of learning something. And so I was clearly still just like processing fly fishing and like want to do it again. And so I dreamt that I caught a fish, but I did not actually catch a fish. How pathetic is that? I was also catch and release for what it’s worth, but yes.
MC: Did you release in your dream? That you-
LG: No. In my dream actually, I was so clumsy that the rod ended up in the river. So the drain did not have a happy ending, even though I caught a fish.
AR: I wonder if that’s like neuromuscular integration or if that’s you were actually got some access to seeing some parallel out in the quantum foam of the universe of like, oh, that’s what would have happened? You got sliding doors on the river.
LG: Oh, yeah. That was my digital ghost. That’s also the me that got married. That’s the one that caught the fish and then fell in the river.
AR: That’s right. You’re getting to see all of her life.
LG: Yeah. That’s a, sorry. That’s like a really bad reference to another WIRED story I wrote. Go check it out-
AR: It’s a really good WIRED story. It’s a really good story.
LG: Yeah. But no, I liked that Adam, that is like, wow, what if we have the ability to dream Like what our lives would have been like if we were Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, good reference. OK, Mike, what’s your-
AR: Thank you very much.
LG: Thank you for hearing me out on fly fishing. Mike, what’s your recommendation this week?
MC: I’m going to recommend a book. It’s a memoir. It came out I think last year, but I just finished it. It’s a bay area writer named Nina Renata Aron. And the name of the book is Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls. It is a very serious, very intense memoir about addiction and codependency, which not exactly rosy topics, but she does a really fantastic job of telling her story, making it relatable, telling you about the people in her life who have been addicted, about her own addictions, and about her codependent relationships with all the people around her.
Just a really engaging read that went to a lot of places that I was not expecting it to go. There’s humor in the story. There’s a lot of pathos in the story, obviously, but it has this emotional weight to it that isn’t too burdensome. And there are a lot of addiction memoirs out there. A lot of them are very difficult to read. There are not a lot of co-dependency the memoirs out there. So, first of all, a check in the plus column, but also to read one that is like digestible and not only very well written, but not something that you’re going to really have to psych yourself up to read.
It’s a very readable memoir about some very difficult topics. So that’s why I want to recommend it, maybe for somebody in your life, maybe for yourself, Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls.
LG: I am going to download that before I get on my next flight. Thank you, Mike.
MC: Sure thing. All right. That is our show. Thank you to you our guests, Mr. Adam Rogers, for coming back on this year jam.
AR: It was always a delight to see you all and talk to you.
LG: Adam, tell us once more, the name of your book and where people can find it.
AR: It is Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern. You can find it at bookstores. You can find it at the places that sell books on your internet in both a hard copy, electronic, and even in audio form. It is available in all of those.
LG: And we’ll include a link in the show notes as well.
AR: Thank you.
MC: Don’t miss out on Proof: The Science of Booze.
AR: That one also. I wrote that one too. It’s fun.
LG: Sorry. We were a little slow to respond to that because we’ve been enjoying that book quite a bit.
MC: And of course, thank you all for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of this on Twitter. Just check the show notes. This show is produced by Boone Ashworth. Goodbye, and we will be back next week.
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