Tuesday, 30 January 2007

The Etymology of Spectrometry

It's life or death. You're looking down at a mess of wires connected in varying combinations to a sturdy looking array of explosives. A red LED clock ticks the seconds down. 10, 9... In your hands is a pair of wire cutters. The radio stutters to life, "Cut the blue wire!" your temperamental commander shouts. You remember your dead partner and realise that after the events of the last two days, death would be a welcome change. You reach out and cut the wire. The universe skips a heartbeat before the clock flickers and dies. You saved the city, Seargeant, or should I say Captain. Unless you happen to be Welsh, that is.
In Welsh, as in a number of other languages, the word for blue encompasses green. Does this mean that, because they lack a mental label, they are unable to distinguish between the two colours? Colours are just words which have been invented to describe different sections of the visible electromagnetic spectrum from short-wavelength violet light to long wavelength red light. In this article from the Economist, two viewpoints among psychologists are identified. One states that human brains are hardwired to recognise and separate the 6 basic colours you might find in a cheap children's painting set. The other states that the spectrum is arbitrarily chopped up into segments based on social and linguistic factors. As always with these kinds of nature-nurture debates the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle; my personal bias tends towards the latter. Another recurring feature of these kinds of debates is that anyone can weigh in and sound like an expert, which makes it something ideal to save up for your next dinner party or night at home alone with your thoughts and a bottle of red. Or is that yellow?

6 comments:

Ash Sere said...

It's interesting that green and blue are more commonly confused, it would seem, than any other two colours.

Plainly complementary colours are unlikely to be confused, as: blue and orange; green and red.

Further, taking the big six, two within the primary colours or two within the secondary colours are very unlikely to be confused, as: yellow and red (your example); green and purple.

It follows that the most likely confusion arises from placing a primary colour with a non-complementary secondary colour, as: blue and green; purple and red.

Really this is perfectly obvious, since the secondary in each of this final category is a compound of the primary (since the complementaries are compounds of the other two primaries), thus the two colours do share.

So why is blue/green a more common confusion than, say, red/orange?

...and most interestingly of all, why is red/green so often a colour blindness victim?

Nick James said...

Yes, the colours which are confused sit next to each other on the electromagnetic spectrum, so I don't think it's really a case of confusing two colours, more a decision on how that spectrum is divided. If a culture has no use for distinguishing between what we call blue and green, why name them differently?

Ash Sere said...

Because one might thereby separate the earth from the firmament...

Nick James said...

I think it's unlikely anyone's going to make that mistake. Anyway, it's only good half the time.

juniper pearl said...

did you mean etymology, hon? because entomology is the study of insects, and "entymology" isn't a word--not in the world according to merriam-webster, anyway.

Nick James said...

Yes, I did mean that. Thankyou very much for pointing it out.