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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Did Ancient Cultures Have the Blues? 

June 27, 2016


Blueberries, a cloudless sky, and grandma’s hair…there’s blue all around us. But would you be aware of it if you didn’t know the word for it? This perceptual question was explored by language historian Lazarus Geiger who looked for the progression of color words in ancient languages like Greek, Chinese, and Hebrew. He found that the earliest color-related words in each culture were black and white (or dark and light). Next came red, then yellow and green. But blue was the last common color word to appear in every ancient language. The Egyptians were the first on the blue bandwagon and, not coincidentally, also the first to produce blue dye.

But the question remains: Is the ability to actually see a color dependent on having a word for it? An anthropological experiment with the Himba people of Namibia sheds some light on this dilemma. Himba participants in the study had great difficulty spotting a blue square in a palette of green squares, but no problem finding a subtly different shade of green in the same context. The Himba have many words to describe green things, but no word for blue.

Is it easy seeing green? Find out here.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Is it Easy Seeing Green?

November 3, 2015

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For all humans reading this, the answer is yes! Human eyes can perceive more shades of green than any other color. But why green? Shouldn’t we be able to see all colors equally? On a purely scientific level, our vision gives green more weight because two out of the three types of cones in our retinas—medium and long cones—are most sensitive to the part of the spectrum of light that we perceive as green. Short cones favor the blue end of the spectrum, but the other two overlap in the middle, which is the sweet spot for all things green. But basic biology aside, is there a reason that our eyes evolved this way? There’s more interpretive debate here, but most scientists agree that it’s because we evolved in predominantly green environments like forests and jungles where, Darwin would argue, our ancestors who could perceive more shades of green were better equipped to distinguish the tastiest food sources. So, with this high-def color vision, human eyes are pretty sophisticated, huh? Enter the mighty mantis shrimp, which has twelve types of photoreceptors (versus humans’ three), which allow them to perceive a wider slice of the EM spectrum. Also, unlike mere humans, the peacock mantis shrimp can punch with the acceleration of a .22 caliber bullet. That’s 50 times faster than the blink of a human eye. It’s enough to make people green with envy…

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