The Color of the Sky

Lately, I’ve been enjoying reading Victoria Finlay’s wonderful cultural history of color – Color; A Natural History of the Palette. She takes the rainbow and teases it apart through a series of delightful stories of her own travels in search of pigment interspersed with rich tales of the history of our use of, creation of, and trading in color. Highly recommended!

Here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite.

“What did I learn at art school? I learned that art is painting, not painted.” Harvey Fierstein. (p.11)

“We sat in the half dark drinking salty tea, and he talked about how a deity appeared to a boy in a dream. ” I can tell you,” the deity said, “how to find everything you want in the world: riches, friends, power. Even wisdom.” “How can I do that?” asked the boy eagerly. It is easy, he was told. All you need to do is close your eyes and not think about the color sea green. The boy confidently closed his eyes, but his thoughts were full of waves and jade and the sky on a misty morning. He tried to think of red, or of trumpets, or the wind in the trees, but the sea kept flowing into his mind like a tide. Over the years, remembering his dream, he would often sit quietly and try not to think of green. But he never quite succeeded. And then one day, when he was an old man, he did it: he sat for a long time without even a flicker of color in his thoughts. and he opened his eyes and smiled – and when my monk friend got to this point, he opened his own eyes and smiled. “He smiled,” said the monk, “because he realized he already had everything he wanted in the world.” (p.256)


The nineteenth century  British scientist and motivator John Tyndall always said that he did his best thinking about the nature of light and colors while he was walking in the mountains. He took his holidays in the Alps. It was a place where his mind could be clear, he said, and it was also a place where, on sunny days, the sky was clear enough to think about. He was an educator and one of the best. He would stand in front of audiences at the School of Mines, and he would teach people how to use their imagination to understand science. To explain the color of the sky, he would use an image of the sea.

Think of an ocean, he would say, and think of the waves crashing against the land. If they came across a huge cliff then all the waves would stop; if they met a rock, then only the smaller waves would be affected; while a pebble would change the course of only the tiniest waves washing against the beach. This is what happens with light from the sun. Going through the atmosphere the biggest wavelengths – the red ones – are usually unaffected, and it is only the smallest ones – the blue and violet ones – which are scattered by the tiny pebble-like molecules in the sky, giving the human eye the sensation of blue.

Tyndall thought it was particles of dust which did it; Einstein later proved that even molecules of oxygen and hydrogen are big enough to scatter the blue rays and leave the red alone. But the effect of both theories is the same. And at sunset, when the air is polluted with molecules of dust – or, over the sea, little salt particles – both of which act as “rocks” rather than “pebbles” in disturbing the wavelengths of light, the sky will seem orange or even red. When Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, shooting jets of volcanic dust into the sky and killing three hundred people, the sunsets throughout South Asia were crimson. I remember smiling, ignorant of the reason, thinking how beautiful they were. (pp. 304-5)

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