Archive for July, 2015

Encounters with the Posthuman – Issue 26: Color

July 31, 2015

On the second balmy
day of the year in New York, Neil Harbisson, a Catalan artist, musician, and self-professed
“cyborg,” walked into a café in the Nolita district of Manhattan. The actor
Gabriel Byrne was sitting at a table in the corner. Harbisson approached. “May
I do a sound portrait of you? It will just take one minute. For nine years,
I’ve been listening to colors,” he explained.

Byrne eyed his
questioner from under raised eyebrows. On a slight frame, the 30-year-old
Harbisson wore a white T-shirt, deep-pink jeans and black-and-white showman’s
brogues. His face was angular, with an aquiline nose and a chin smudged with
grown-out stubble. A small plastic oval floated in front of his forehead,
attached to the end of a flexible stem that reached around from the back of his
head and over a sandy pageboy mop, like the light on the head of an angler fish. This “eyeborg,” as Harbisson calls it, converts
light into audible sound, with a pitch that varies according to the color of
the light.

I AM CYBORG: The artist Neil Harbisson, with his “eyeborg” that translates color into audible sound. He has been wearing a version of the…

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Splotchy Cats Show Why It’s Better to Be Female – Facts So Romantic

July 30, 2015

If you’ve never really noticed the wide range of colors that can adorn the domestic cat, you might want to spend some time skimming through the official color charts of the Cat Fanciers Association website. According to the association, which claims to maintain the largest registry of pedigreed cats, cats can come in seal lynx and mackerel tabby, chinchilla silver and cream smoke, blue-patched and blue point. There are mitted cats and van cats, as well as more obvious cats that you might actually be able to picture in your mind, like “green-eyed white.” (Here is a very detailed poster showing much of the complexity in distinguishing breeds.)

This Crayola box of fur is enabled by just a handful of genes, leveraged by a long history of human breeders obsessed with getting the rarest or most beautiful or most striking combinations. But in that world of cat possibility, perhaps the strangest and most interesting of all is the common calico cat. All calicos (and all tortoiseshells) have blotches of black and orange fur. They are also almost always female. The reason why has to do with a genetic phenomenon that gets down to the very…

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Looking Through Paintings to See What’s Hidden – Facts So Romantic

July 29, 2015

This post originally ran on Facts So Romantic in May, 2013.

There is more to the world than meets the human eye, a fact that hit home for the 18th-century astronomer Sir Frederick William Herschel when he discovered infrared light—a wavelength of light that lies just outside the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. We can feel its heat, but we can’t see the light—not without special equipment designed to be sensitive in this regime.

It’s somehow fitting that this invisible form of radiation is now used by infrared telescopes to “see” through interstellar dust in our universe to image distant, hidden galaxies, among other celestial objects—not to mention the increasingly common use of infrared (IR) photography here on Earth. A simple image of a park on a sunny day is transformed in the infrared into an eerily surreal landscape, simultaneously familiar and alien.

That’s because many materials reflect, absorb, and transmit infrared light differently than they do visible light: Reds and greens appear lighter, while blues and browns appear dark. A clear sky will appear very dark, except for the occasional white cloud; vegetation, like trees, reflects IR and will appear extremely bright in an infrared image—unless the tree…

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Two Ideas for Predicting the Next Color of the Year – Facts So Romantic

July 28, 2015

In each of the past 16 Decembers, Pantone has announced a “color of the year.” The company, famous for its system for standardizing colors around the world, has chosen hues as different as vibrant Fuschia Rose (2001) and understated Sand Dollar (2006) to encapsulate the visual and psychic spirit they believe will prevail during the coming year. Seldom do successive years share similar shades. But back in 2004, the orange Tigerlily provided a fulcrum between two relatively close blue tones: 2003’s pale Aqua Sky and 2005’s bolder Blue Turquoise. The warm orange was meant to evoke hipness and a hint of something exotic. But seen together on the color charts, the oscillation of aqua/orange/aqua calls to mind the iconic colors of the old Howard Johnson’s roadside restaurants.

The colorists at Pantone might blush at that retro connection, but it’s indicative of the incredible power color holds in branding—a big part of the reason that Pantone’s annual selections are so significant. Leatrise Eiseman, the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, explained that the selection committee pays attention to “concept cars, the entertainment industry, the fashion industry, [and the] food and beverage industry” in order to…

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Is Coloring Within the Lines the New Meditation? – Facts So Romantic

July 26, 2015

I sit motionless on the hardwood floor. My legs are crossed in a full lotus position and the back of my hands rest on top of my knees with my pointer fingers pressed slightly against my thumbs. My posture reflects the small Buddha statue in front of me. And together, our shadows dance on the distant wall, caused by the flickering light of a small candle.

So begins my nightly meditation. But that moment of pure bliss, where the slightest smile can be traced on my lips, never comes.

It fees like it’s 100 degrees in my apartment. Sirens keep rolling past, together with red and blue lights splashed against my closed eyes. My lower back is screaming in pain. My left leg is already fast asleep. My breathing is shallow. And worst of all: My mind is in full flux. I can’t help but think about that impending deadline at work. It’s anything but calming. In retrospect, I could just chalk it up to a bad night. They happen. But there’s a new trend emerging that just might solve my dilemma: coloring books.

Some of the beautiful artwork in the Joanna Basford’s hugely popular adult coloring book The Secret GardenJoanna…

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The Powerful Allure of the Deep Azure – Facts So Romantic

July 25, 2015

There was a place in Iowa in 1995, tucked away in the dark-green fields of soybeans and corn, where a flooded rock quarry shimmered aquamarine. I stood on its edge one hot summer day with two friends. Like most teenagers, we were drawn to the rebelliousness of it. To get there, we had to trespass on private land and ignore the “swimming forbidden by law” signs. But really, we wanted to experience something that we had only seen on postcards. “It was a beautiful oasis,” remembers one friend. “Like lagoons in Hawaii,” recalls another.

Composite photograph of a quarryElena Dorfman

We removed our shoes and chose a low point of entry. Our bare feet crumbled the soft limestone composed of brachiopods, crinoids, and trilobites, ancient creatures that once lived in the shallow seas covering Iowa millions of years ago. (The geological twist being that the state is now landlocked, and these remnants of its prehistoric sea life pave the local secondary roads.) We jumped in.

We weren’t the only ones drawn to forbidden blue water. Open-pit quarries exist in many rural regions of the world, and they often entice swimmers who don’t have easy access to the sea. But quarries are <a…

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The Ambiguous Colors of Nanotechnology – Issue 26: Color

July 24, 2015

Kate Nichols leans her delicate face against the glass of a chemical fume hood in a University of California, Berkeley lab, peering into a beaker filled with a pale yellow liquid—“like a well hydrated person’s pee,” she says, laughing. The yellow brew is a fresh batch of silver nanoparticles. Over the next week, the liquid will turn green, then turquoise, then blue as the particles morph in shape from spheroids to prisms under the influence of time and fluorescent light. Post-docs and grad students elsewhere in the nanotech lab are synthesizing nanoparticles for research on artificial photosynthesis and quantum dot digital displays. But not Nichols. She isn’t a scientist, but an artist, gripped by color.

About 15 miles away, in her studio in San Francisco’s Mission District, brightly colored pigments sit on a crowded shelf next to the nanopaints she made in the lab: vials of yellowish and brown solutions containing varying sizes and concentrations of silver nanoparticles. On a nearby wall opposite a large oil painting of close-up fish scales hangs a group of small sculptures she calls “Figments.” Each is made of two triangular pieces of glass covered in nanoparticle paint, and joined by a hinge. They look…

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Why Ancient Greeks Might Have Had Much Different Colors Than We Do – Facts So Romantic

July 23, 2015

As a philosopher who studies the meaning of color, Mazviita Chirimuuta is well aware that philosophy can easily get stuck on that topic. In her recent book, Outside Color, Chirimuuta tries to move beyond one of the major hang-ups when thinking about color, arguing that the property should be defined not by the world outside or inside our heads, but an interaction of both.

Here she discusses one way in which people can use very different ideas to refer to, and think about, colors. For more on the philosophy of color, watch her whole Ingenious interview.

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6 Places Where Earth Has Gone Color Crazy – Facts So Romantic

July 22, 2015

The Grand Prismatic Lake in Yellowstone National Park is rightfully famous for the beautiful colors produced by its unique chemistry. But there are also other places where chemistry and geology combine to create vivid natural colors, in hot springs, rock formations, and even normally monochrome glaciers.

Chinoike Jigoku, or Bloody Hell Pond, is one of a series of linked hot springs in the city of Beppu, in Japan’s Oita Prefecture, known as the Eight Hells. With temperatures in some of the springs reaching as high as 302 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius), the waters are too hot for a relaxing dip, but that doesn’t dissuade tourists who come to marvel at the superheated springs. Bloody Hell Pond gets its distinctive crimson hue and horror-film name from the red clay at its base, which is laden with magnesium oxide and iron oxide.

Chinoike Jigoku (“Bloody Hell Pond”)Wikipedia user 663highland

Bloody Hell Pond isn’t the only one of the Eight Hells that is strikingly colored. Visitors can snack on hard-boiled eggs cooked over the steaming waters of Umi Jigoku, which gets its startling blue coloration from iron sulfate.

Umi JigokuGabriel Rodriguez via Flickr

In the Triassic Period, more than 200 million years…

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A Chemical Attack That Killed a Countryside & Scarred a People – Facts So Romantic

July 21, 2015

Mangroves are sturdy trees. Recognizable by their extensive root systems, these trees can thrive in muddy soil, sand, peat, even coral. They tolerate water much saltier than most other plants and survive flooding during severe storms. It is perhaps their sturdiness that led mangroves to be one of the most significant targets in the Vietnam War.

During the war, communist guerilla fighters would often take refuge in Vietnam’s thick jungles. Mangroves, among other types of flora, provided shelter from eyes in the sky seeking to deliver air strikes in strategic locations. So the U.S. military exposed guerillas by bombarding the trees themselves with huge amounts of defoliants, chemical herbicides that cause the leaves to fall off of plants. The most infamous defoliant was Agent Orange, named for the orange stripes marking the drums it was shipped in.

The defoliant is an equal mix of two herbicides, 2,4-diclorophenoxyacetic acide (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). When sprayed on foliage during the war, it quickly stripped off the leaves, revealing anyone and anything below the canopy, destroying crops, and clearing vegetation near U.S. bases. By the end of the campaign, U.S. military forces had sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange on over…

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