Full Spectrum

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In 2015, the world was divided into two warring factions seemingly overnight. And at the center of this schism was a single photograph.

[NEWS MONTAGE]
NEWS ANCHOR: SOCIAL MEDIA IS EXPLODING THIS MORNING WITH A DEBATE ABOUT ONE DRESS, THE SIMPLE QUESTION IS WHAT COLORS DO YOU SEE? BLACK AND BLUE OR WHITE AND GOLD….

IT’S BLUE AND BLACK.

ITS WHITE AND GOLD

IT’S BLUE AND BLACK

I REALLY SEE WHITE AND GOLD

IT’S BLUE AND BLACK

ELLEN DEGENERES: IT’S FINALLY TIME FOR ME TO BREAK MY SILENCE. I SEE WHITE AND GOLD. (AUDIENCE CHEERS)

Roman Mars:
If you’ve been living off the grid and under a rock, I’m here to tell you that once upon a time a photo of a dress took over the internet. In 2015, Cecilia Bleasdale took a picture of a dress that she planned to wear to her daughter’s wedding… and that photo went so viral that it literally slowed down the internet. If you haven’t seen it yet, Google it because depending on how your brain works, you either see it as blue with black trim, or white with gold trim with absolutely no room in between for debate. But back in 2015, while the rest of us were bickering over black vs white vs blue vs gold, science writer Adam Rogers knew this story was way more than just a popular meme.

Adam Rogers:
You could tell that the biggest story in the country for the next eight hours was a science story. And it was a science of vision and neuropsychiatry and neurobiology and color.

Roman Mars:
This is Adam, by the way. He was working as the science editor at Wired at the time.

Adam Rogers:
We just knew it had to be ours. And we also knew that everyone else would now be thinking of this as a science story because the first story was the meme story. The first story was, “Check out this dress that everybody thinks is two different colors!” And immediately, what’s the first thing that you say when that happens? The first thing you say to yourself is: why?

Roman Mars:
Adam recently wrote a book called “Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern.” Today I’m going to be talking to him about how the pursuit to organize, understand, and create colors has been one of the driving forces shaping human history. Starting with.. the dress.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
So could you tell me where you were and what you were up to the first time you saw a picture of the dress?

Adam Rogers:
It was the end of the day at “Wired” and this, you know, this meme came across everybody’s desk and I guess I should acknowledge upfront I’m a little chagrined to say I did not think much of it when the picture first showed up. I thought, “huh.” That’s what I thought — “huh.” But then a pal of mine, a guy who was the executive editor came and kind of plopped down next to me just to kibitz as his God-given right of all journalists. And we kind of said, did you see this dress thing? It’s crazy, this dress thing. It’s like, yeah, that’s crazy. And he just said to me, “It’s obviously white.” And I went, “Rob, it’s blue man.” And he looked at me like I was insane. And I looked at him like he was insane. and I’m not kidding at that exact instant. The guy who edited the website at the time, Joe Brown, came running across from the other side of the building where his desk was and like his mouth open to make the first half of the word “have” to scream, “Have you seen,” right? And before he could even make the “ha–” sound. I yelled across the room, “We’re on it.” (laughter)

Roman Mars:
So, like optical illusions or even auditory illusions, they’re all over the Internet. The illusion where you see like two faces or a vase or that–

Adam Rogers:
The duck or the rabbit.

Roman Mars:
Or the duck or a rabbit. What was it about the dress that stirred up so much debate? Why did it slow down servers across the world? How is it unique to this particular optical illusion?

Adam Rogers:
I have a hypothesis about what I think the most important thing was, and it’s that the illusions that you just mentioned were all illusions of form, even if they’re bimodal, which is to say they look one way and then the other way. Our brains tend to flip in between them. They flip back and forth. You stare at it for long enough and you see one and then the other and then one and then the other. But illusions of color, we don’t. Your brain kind of chose one and then locked in.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Adan Rogers:
And then when somebody else would say they saw the other one, that just seemed insane. It was like somebody was saying, “No, obviously people walk on the ceiling and then if they fall, they hit the floor.” Like no, people walk on the floor. Or, you know, like it was as if somebody saw the way that you didn’t, there was no… there was no crossing that gap. It was impenetrable.

Roman Mars:
It was either you were correct or you are insane. And there was no middle ground between them, which is why great debates on the Internet happen.

Adam Rogers:
That’s right. And also that the stakes were so low.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so then let’s get into it. What is happening here? Why does it seem like it’s white and gold or blue and black to different people?

Adam Rogers:
Right. Well, so to get into that, you have to first understand that when we see colors, when we talk about colors, we’re talking about two related but separate properties. Now, obviously, what we’re talking about are photons or electromagnetic waves bouncing off of a thing and then bouncing into our eyes. So that’s true, that’s the thing that happens. That’s physics. But surfaces will have a color and then there’s a color illumination. There’s light that’s hitting those surfaces. And when we see colors, what our eyes and our brains are doing — a calculation essentially that combines those two things and effectively tries to subtract the color of the illumination from the surface so that you can say what the surface color objectively is. That is an ability called color constancy.

Roman Mars:
And so, for example, if I’m in a room with white walls and I know it’s a room with white walls and I put a red light bulb in it, I don’t think those are red walls. I think those are white walls. But they just look red to me because there’s a red light bulb in the room.

Adam Rogers:
Yeah, that’s exactly right. I would even invert it and say if you see a picture of an egg, but it’s red, you don’t go, oh, a red egg. Yeah. You say, oh, an egg with a red light shining on it.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Exactly.

Adam Rogers:
Now the two examples that both of us just used there, are two of the hypotheses about how the brain creates color constancy. The ability to see an object as having the same color under different illuminations. So that’s– what’s going on is your brain is trying to figure out what color is the light and what color is the object.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm.

Adam Rogers:
Okay, the image taken on a phone — so with a sensor in 2015, that wasn’t great, that wasn’t really good at figuring out what the color of light was and what the color of the object is seen on screens. So with light being emitted into people’s eyes from the screens, not as a reflective surface as you would see an absorptive surface as if you were looking at a photograph, let’s say.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm.

Adam Rogers:
And, this is the key thing, what time of day was it? So because of the way kind of the background of the photograph looked like it was lit, which was very brightly lit, your brain could make a decision. Unconsciously, your brain would decide, am I looking at a picture that was taken at high noon when the color of the light – that’s ambient light outside – is bright, yellowish-white, or am I looking at something that was taken in the afternoon? And so if you thought that the photograph was taken in midday, then the illuminance was white and the color of the dress was blue. But if you thought that the dress was in shadow or when the sun was lower in the sky, then you thought, that’s a white dress in some sort of shadow.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm.

Adam Rogers:
That what I’m seeing as blue is actually just the color of the light around it.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Adam Rogers:
So the mind makes that decision and sticks to it.

Roman Mars:
With a lot of visual illusions, you either see the duck or the rabbit or the old woman or the young woman. But there’s no correct answer because it’s both, like it’s designed to be both. What’s interesting about the dress is that half the people who say they saw white and gold were just wrong.

Adam Rogers:
I think we can agree that the people who saw white were bad people. I think that’s fairly clear to me. There are people who should be shunned, I think, broadly. But what you’ve identified there is that the problem is that there really is a dress. There is a dress, a dress exists, that dress exists and it is blue. It was made to be blue, it’s dyed blue. It’s made of a blue textile. You know, it’s made of a textile that has the properties of being blue. So it’s a blue dress. But as soon as you were looking at a reproduction on a computer screen of an image taken with a digital camera, and also, honestly, the color scientists really will say, look, ultimately the color that you perceive is a function of the photons interacting with the surface and then the way that your brain and eye process those colors. A bumblebee, looking at the same object would see it as a different color because they have different photoreceptors, their eyes work differently, their brains work differently. So who’s right?

[MUSIC]

Adam Rogers:
Is the bumblebee right or am I right? There’s a color. There’s a thing. It has a color. It’s a real thing. If you stop believing that then you’re having a philosophical conversation — it’s an important one, but it’s a different one. But the question of how our brains and eyes make those colors for us, even when we do it the same way, even if you and I see the same color there, it’s an interesting question of why we do it the same way.

Roman Mars:
So the general public was very excited about this, you and all the folks at Wired were very excited about this. What did the color scientists of the world think about this? What did they take from this?

Adam Rogers:
It was existential for them. So the scientists start trying all of the kinds of experiments that you would imagine that you would want to do. My favorite work was actually getting the dress — the real dress. So these researchers actually got the dress and set it up in a room with black walls, basically like a black box theater, and then set up the lighting in the room with tunable LED lights. One of the things that happens when human beings see light is that it can create — if there’s combinations of wavelengths — you can create something called a metamer. So you can have one kind of light, you know, one wavelength of light, but also a mixture of wavelengths that looks the same. And to our eye and our brain, they’re indistinguishable. This is one of the key differences between seeing color and listening to music, let’s say.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm.

Adam Rogers:
When we listen to music, we hear all the individual wavelengths, we hear all the notes, and then they combine together in euphonious and harmonious ways, right? Like they become chords. But that doesn’t happen with light. It combines into one thing and that can fool us into… so we’re not sure what we’re really looking at. So what they did in this room was they would… you would think you were seeing the dress under white light. Under… and white light is equal amounts of every wavelength.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Adam Rogers:
But in fact, they would drop some wavelengths out which alters the way that you perceive the object, but in an imperceptible way. And they found that they could control what color people reported seeing on the dress — that they could force the card. They could make people see it as white or make people see it as blue or make people see it as really any color they wanted, which is… which will keep you up at night if you’re a color scientist.

Roman Mars:
I mean, you compare the dress in the book to the Rosetta Stone saying it may allow scientists to decrypt the corners of human perception and psychological color space. What do you mean by that?

Adam Rogers:
When we talk about color, we think we’re talking about the color of an object. We have an object in our hand and it has some color that’s intrinsic to it or intrinsic to its surface. And then if we really, if we think harder about that, we know we’re also talking about something in physics. We’re talking about something subatomic. Photons are waves that are bouncing off of that thing and bouncing into our eyes. And then if we think even harder about that, we know we’re talking about well, actually, we’re talking about the way that these sensors built into our skulls process that information and transduce it into neural electrical signals that then goes into the meat that we think with and then gets retranslated into some vision of the world, literally a vision of the world that we have. And so that’s the hardest anybody can think about this problem. But because it’s happening inside our brains, because it’s part of our– the process of creation of mind, it’s influenced by who we are and how those brains developed, how THE brain developed and how our specific brain developed. So there’s these successive iterations of perception that if you can either take them all apart or figure out how they relate to each other, you can begin to understand culture, begin to understand the development of the brain, begin to understand how the brain works and how the brain takes these signals from outside, takes what are objective signals, I mean, there really are photons out there that really are electromagnetic waves, that really are objects, and there really are those things. But we process them through our senses and try to make sense of them. So understanding that, when you get an opportunity like the dress that separates people into different categories depending on how they do this, you begin to understand– you can ideally begin to understand how all of those things work.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
The color white has been so impactful on human history that Adam devoted three whole chapters of his book to it, and we’re going to spend the rest of the episode talking about one of those stories — the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the “White City.” Some of you might recognize it from Erik Larson’s book “Devil in the White City,” but the whole serial killer part of the White City tends to overshadow the design aspect. Adam tells me about how this event was a powerful example of how color and architecture could be more than just aesthetic choices, but tools of asserting cultural dominance.

Adam Rogers:
The Chicago World’s Fair 1893 — basically two, three, four — really is this kind of picked over, well-picked over fare for architecture design fans because the color and design of it are so much part of the story of American hegemony at the time. So by the time this World’s Fair happened, there had been several in Europe and they were grand successes and especially one in Paris where they built this beautiful tower that people have probably heard of, or like the one in London where they built the Crystal Palace and their gorgeous exhibition halls. And people would go from all over the world, they would show up and there were you know, these things were like educational and theme parks and also trade fairs all rolled into one thing. And they really showed off the cities in the way that everybody always hopes like an Olympics will these days. And so in the U.S., with the anniversary of Christopher Columbus arriving on the North American continent, or at least within a ship’s throw of the North American continent, there was this desire in the U.S. to celebrate that and also to celebrate what was seen as this single American achievement of having made it all the way across the continent, of fulfilling that manifest destiny that everybody thought was the right of the white people, the white men who were running the country at the time. So then the questions became, well, how do you celebrate that and where do you? What do you do? And finally, after some competition, the city that really was kind of the center of American culture physically, really the center of American culture at the time, one was Chicago-

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm.

Adam Rogers:
Which won out over these East Coast cities that were the oldest cities, won out over New York and Boston, Philadelphia, whatever. Mostly because it was the center of this vast rail network and the center of the American consumption of protein and a place where more people could come. But also because it was the — I mean, you could make the argument it was the great city at that moment in the United States, partially because it was where the architects, famous architects, were working on inventing the skyscraper. This thing that we define cities all over the world by now was first being worked out in its most basic scheme by specifically some architects who then were the ones who got assigned to figure out the World’s Fair, this world’s exposition. So you have these names of people who have a significant imprint on the American-built environment, all working together in Chicago. You have Daniel Burnham, who is the main exponent of this beautiful movement — Make No Small Plans was the famous phrase always attributed to him — and his partner, John Root and Frederick Law Olmsted, fresh off his triumphant plans for parks like the Emerald Necklace in Boston, and Central Park in New York, all coming together to figure out how are we going to do this thing that’s going to celebrate the American achievement.

Roman Mars:
It’s almost as if they were trying to decide what uniquely American architecture should look like in the first place. Did they ever figure that out? I mean what did they end up building?

Adam Rogers:
Well, they made a set of decisions that all– like one, sort of progressed from another. But the first decision they made was they said, we’ll have this classic Olmstedian paths and hills and interaction between water and land. And in the center of it, there will be a court of architecture where we will celebrate the best of architecture that we have to offer and all the other fun stuff we’re going to put off to the side. But in the middle part, they were going to have the court of honor, like the most– all the pavilions. And they decided that they didn’t want the pavilions to just look like the Crystal Palace. They didn’t want them to just be temporary-looking metal and glass structures. They had to have solidity and they had to show permanence and they had to show dominance and control. They had to show that the Americans had nailed it and the Americans got it right. And the way that they were going to show that was unclear because there was so much work to do. And they finally had to, like, hire in all the other architects in the country, essentially, like the folks from McCain and White, which is the famous New York firm. And initially in the meetings Root especially, Burnham’s partner did some drawings that were very fanciful and kind of Moorish influenced and red-brown brick. And then all the architects from the East Coast came out for a big meeting. And in the beginning of that meeting, Root wasn’t feeling that well. By the middle of that meeting, Root had pneumonia. And before that meeting was over, over the course of about a week Root had died.

Roman Mars:
Oh wow.

Adam Rogers:
Well, and Burnam kind of lost it. He just couldn’t believe that they had come this close, you know, together to, like, recreating the American built form together. And then, you know, it’s snatched away from them.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Adam Rogers:
But Burnham did have something in common with these other architects who he brought in, which is they were all basically trained in this form– the Beaux Arts School of Architecture, which had come to emphasize a certain style inflected by what they believed the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome to have looked like, so the fact that the Capitol building in Washington looks like a Greek temple, that’s this. That’s neoclassical architecture.

Roman Mars:
Totally.

Adam Rogers:
But together they decided that the way to convey the stolidity that they wanted to convey, the permanence, the glory of Rome, would be to go– to hearken back to the glory of Rome, to the imperial architecture as a style. And they decided they would all match. They said everything in the court of honor would all have the same height. It would all be built in that style. We’re going to build everything that way. And that was all fake. It was all like imagineered-

Roman Mars:
Right.

Adam Rogers:
Because inside these buildings they would look just like the Crystal Palace. It would just be metal and metal frames and glass. But on the outside, they would use this kind of plaster-like stuff called staff, and they would make these forms that would look like they were carved out of the Terrazzo marble of Italy or whatever.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Adam Rogers:
But then they still had a decision to make, which was, okay, well, what are we going to– what’s the surface and what’s the surface treatment going to be? And they talked about stuff like a sort of kind of beige-brown. They ignored a truth that I have convinced myself at least that they would have known at the time, which is that those buildings, when they weren’t neoclassical but were in fact classical — the Greeks and Romans built them. They were very colorful, highly chromatic. All the reds and yellows of the ochers and some blues and greens, the insides would have had harlequin, checkerboard patterns. The archeological evidence at the time that existed even showed that. And the Beaux Arts people, people who trained in the Beaux Arts Architecture School, actually would travel to Athens and to Rome and paint these things. I’ve seen these images that they painted when they brought back for school assignments and they had all the colors on them. Some people still don’t believe it. They’re like, well, maybe that’s just, you know, function of age, that’s just like lichen or something growing on it.

Roman Mars:
(laughs)

Adam Rogers:
There were arguments about it. So they went with– what they end up saying was like, okay, well the court, everything that symbolizes, everything that is… they were going to have all these exhibits at the fair — of everything, all technology through histories, like the transportation building was going to every mode of transportation that had ever been built or the textile building or whatever, every kind of loom ever. They would have everything ever. The guy who was doing the catalogs came from the Smithsonian, described this as being an object lesson. Everything would be an object lesson. An object would have a lesson to it, it would have a catalog. This would be like the card catalog, like every item would be the real actual item and also be a lesson about the development of that item. So the design of the fair itself, of the court of honor, the architecture, that was its own object lesson, saying this is a country that harkens the tradition of Rome in Greece and in fact, like it is the white men who run it.

Roman Mars:
And it really is that direct, right? Like this idea of the cultural weight of whiteness and in that all other color was sinful, including pigment of skin. And, you know, like it really it’s foregrounded that– I think that’s something that I think much like the colorful, you know, facades of Greek classical architecture, I think people have a hard time recognizing how foregrounded the symbolism is to the whiteness.

Adam Rogers:
I tend to have some insensitivity to this kind of symbolism, you know. When I, like, read, I’m like, “oh, that was the… oh, the sled symbolizes the childhood,” you know, like, I missed that stuff. Here it’s so blatant–

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Adam Rogers:
-that they literally took everything of color and put it on the midway. There’s one important exception which is that one of the– every architect or architect’s team got assigned one of these buildings. And Burnham and Root were rightly seen at the time as being some of the parents of the idea of the skyscraper. The other parents, the skyscraper, one of them was an architect named Louis Sullivan. Sullivan was another Chicago architect. And he came in and got assigned the transportation building. Sullivan had not been trained in the Beaux Arts School. He’d been trained in a whole other school of architecture that grew out of a kind of weird, romantic, polychromatism that had come out of Europe and textile work a couple hundred years before. And so he built this riot of color slightly off the court of honor of the transportation building.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm.

Adam Rogers:
Sullivan’s revolution, his chromatic revolution, I think, is the one actually, it’s the only building that really had an influence. Everything else sort of faded away by the 20s. Architectural critics were saying, what were we thinking? We’ve got to try something else. It helps give rise to modernism in architecture. It’s the rebellion against in the same way that sort of punk and new wave were, you know, rebelling against sort of the pop classicism of disco in a weird way, like the architecture rebelled against that, except for the transportation building, the polychromatic transportation building became much more of a touchstone.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, because by the time you get to the 1901 World’s Fair, you know, it’s all a celebration of, you know, polychromy. It’s just like fashion and design and everything of the modernism, you know, is born and it is, you know, multi-color.

Adam Rogers:
Right. And two things happen. One of them is the cultural shift. One of them, I think, is an understanding like, well, look, this country is not going to just be monochromatic in its approach, in its– in who the immigrants are and who the– who runs things. It’s going to be more than that, you know, by then, already Chicago itself was the place where the Great Migration was going to be centered around. You know, it was not just a white city, it was in every color city. And also the technology changed. So in addition to new pigments becoming available and becoming more available to designers and architects, the other thing that happened were electric light.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm.

Adam Rogers:
And once electric light comes in, it becomes literally a whole different way of seeing the natural world outside. You start to see a whole different kind of colors projected onto surfaces. In fact, initially at the Paris Fair, that was the the City of Lights thing that had been a gaslamp experience, but then becomes electrical. Chicago was heavily electrically lit in the early decades of the 20th century, have things like Hoover Dam starting to provide electrical power to places and the West that can start to illuminate their streets. You get neon lights out there, you get a much more polychromatic experience that combines both the service pigment treatments and also the color of light shining on them at night. And people can see colors outside at night that they have never seen before.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, I don’t know why– maybe I’m just like, have the wrong prior’s here, but when I think about the sciences of the world, you know, like you think of physics, you think of chemistry, the business of color doesn’t seem like the preoccupation of serious people or something. I know this it totally wrong but I had no idea how preoccupied people were with color. And as you described it, it really is in many ways, the first formal science and not only that but it’s kind of like humankind’s first science at all because they’re making ochres out of dirt and stones and stuff like this. I mean understanding color really is fundamental to science.

Adam Rogers:
It forces you to grapple. It forces scientists for the history of human science. It forces them to grapple with fundamental questions, forces them to try to figure out, well, okay, if we see these different colors, what are they made of? And they turn out to be made of the basics of physics.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm.

Adam Rogers:
If you’re trying to apply colors to a surface and you want to understand how to do that better, that turns out to require you to understand the basics of chemistry. If you’re trying to understand how the brain turns sense perceptions into mind you, you turn to colors as the proxy to understand that because they’re a thing that the brain does, that it’s not only a metaphor, it’s an actual thing that gets turned into a perception that gets turned into a to a sense of the world. And so at every moment to me, I could sort of go to every moment that were the beginnings of these multiple fields of basic science and find the person who got there by studying color.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm.

Adam Rogers:
You get to, you know, James Clerk Maxwell before… on the way to figuring out electromagnetism is working with color. John Dalton on the way to figuring out atomic theory for atoms, on the way there is trying to figure out color blindness and color all the way back to this cave in South Africa where archeologists find 80,000 year old workshop just for making paint, because it’s so important that there’s a special place to do that that they preserve.

Roman Mars:
This episode was produced by Vivian Le. After the break, Adam Rogers comes back to tell me what the world’s first color wheel was made of.… You’re in for a cool story.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So one of the things that people were preoccupied with when it came to color was how to organize and order color. And I’m intrigued by the earliest known example of a color wheel and what it was made of and what it was made for. Can you describe that to me?
Adam Rogers: The very first physical color we know… People have been trying to put colors in order– it was a preoccupation of Aristotle and Plato and all of the Greek philosophers and then the early Arab philosophers to try to figure out what a color order is because you don’t understand. There’s all these colors. Are they a sequence? How does one become the other? What does that transition like? Why is it different for light than for pigments? All these things are really hard questions. One of the very first ones of the earliest kind of known illustrated version of one of these is actually a line of glass vessels full of different shades of yellow liquid, which are urine. It was doctors trying to diagnose ailments by the color of a person’s urine. And so it would be like from clear to dark brown or I guess blue if you have porphyria or something like blue to dark brown, like what could be wrong with this person. And you needed some kind of objective, you know, metric to say like, oh, we’re in the sort of dark yellow version that maybe too much of the wrong humor or something like that.

Roman Mars:
(laughs)

Adam Rogers:
So, yes, it’s just a diagram of pee. The thing that I love about this, though, the thing that’s super cool to me about this, is that in order to make these– make the artwork of the drawing, the actual physical object where these flasks that if you were in a lab today, you call it a boiling flask. It’s like a sphere with a little stem at the top of it.

Roman Mars:
Totally.

Adam Rogers:
And being able to make those accurately, make a sphere out of glass, that’s a technical skill — the glassblowing thing that people learned how to do. But before there were prisms, these glass globes, sort of goldfish bowl things full of liquid, were an early optic technology and it was using– it was looking at the way that light moved through these that allowed the Arab translators and scientists like from the 300 to the 11 hundreds to understand correct and expand on the early optics work of like Aristotle and Pliny, folks like that, because they were translating this work and it didn’t make any sense and they were wrong about everything. So they did the experiments themselves and they used these glass spheres full of liquid to see how light moved and to understand what came to be refraction, to understand that a rainbow could form by multiple refraction through drops through raindrops, because these spheres, these same spheres that eventually would be like in the 11 hundreds or whatever were used to store urine and look at the color of it were the thing that let them make a proxy for a single drop of water and figure out the movement of life. It’s not just a pee joke.

Roman Mars:
That’s so good.

Roman Mars:
Adam Rogers’s book is called “Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made us Modern.” We only scratched the surface of what he covered in the book. So if you want to nerd out about color with Adam some more, and I highly recommend that you do that, you should definitely check it out.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Vivian Le. Mix and tech production by Jim Briggs. Music by director of sound Sean Real. Delaney Hall is the Executive Producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Joe Rosenberg, Lasha Madan, Christopher Johnson, Emmett FitzGerald, Sofia Klatzker and me, Roman Mars.

We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.

You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.

 

  1. debbi siebert

    Can this be related to a person’s age? When we watched black and white TV, we had to imagine color based on the tones of the clothing worn. (I grew up in the 50’s). It was magical when some of the black and white shows/movies were colorized in later years. Were those the colors I imagined them to be? I don’t remember, but it was impossible to watch TV for me and not imagine everything in those shows as specific colors, and my own making.

  2. It is important to note here that it is not true that the color sticks for everyone. I have seen both colors and I have even seen it switch as I was looking at it. Looking at the image from different angles seems to help push your mind to try and see the other color.

    Absolutely love the story otherwise. The dress was one of those popular moments that I found so fun and interesting. Many people found it annoying but I am really glad to hear you both be so excited about something that was so…weird! It’s a really unusual image!

  3. Simon

    I loved this episode because I was deeply fascinated but the question of why people saw different colors in that photo of the dress.
    However, I was frustrated that right at the point where there was acknowledgement that a bumblebee might see different colors than we do (“which is right, which is wrong?”) we didn’t get an answer.
    I believe there should be an answer.
    Because in every photo, certain colors are present and certain colors are not. In the photo of the dress, when you zoom in using a tool like photoshop we can see, objectively, what colors are present. And they veer toward the beigy-brown rather than blue (regardless of what the actual color of the dress was in real life).
    What I’d like to know is why some people can focus on the colors that are present in the photo for their assessment (white and gold) while others layer on an additional set of data (like what they believe the colors should be) to arrive at a different interpretation.
    In other words, if you could keep all of the colors present in the photo, but alter the subject (the dress) to resemble no specifically recognizable object, would people still see different colors, or would there be greater agreement?

  4. Natasha Amer

    Also colour is relative- placing colours next to each other can change how we see them. The artist Josef Albers has very interesting examples of how this works.
    And the book: ‘The Devil in the White City’ is fascinating- recommended for all 99% Invisibile listeners

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