This article is Ethan Siegel’s response to Alan Alda’s challenge to explain color in 300 words of less. He meets that challenge, albeit with a lot of visual aids.
It’s one of our most common experiences, and we all know it when we see it.
But what, exactly, is color? Where does it come from, and why does it appear the way it does? Two things are responsible: light and your perceptions.
Color is one of those things that people could say doesn’t exist. In truth, it doesn’t exist in nature. It’s how our brains make sense of different ranges of wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, at least in the part of the spectrum that we can perceive. Color exists, but it exists as a biologically created phenomenon.
What can be freaky to realize, is that many animals perceive a different range of the spectrum than we do. Dogs and wolves are an excellent example. Their range excludes red.
I have to say that I like the idea of explaining things in 300 words or less. Those kinds of word limitations can be frustrating, but it seems to be a stark fact, particularly for online content, that the number of people who will read your essay is inversely proportional to how long it is.