What a colorful world — where we all shine

Published 4:01 pm Thursday, January 7, 2016

Isn’t the world supposed to be drab and monochromatic this time of year? Trees stretch out bare branches. Flowers wait for brighter days. Night lingers, and darkness renders the world in shades of gray.

Yet, I’ve recently observed some spectacular displays of color. On a crispy morning a few weeks ago, I watched the sun rise over a frosty field. It filled the entire eastern sky with streaks of brilliant salmon and purple. Several days later, a series of sunsets featured deep crimson and glowing orange. On an overcast day, I watched a vividly red cardinal sitting on an evergreen branch. And not long ago while I was walking on a sunny day, a small yellow dandelion caught me by surprise when it peeked out from under a brown oak leaf.

Human touches add a splash to nature’s colors. The Christmas season sported multicolored lights. Advertisers displayed flamboyant choices from an entire palate of options. And now as colder days approach, people wrap themselves in sweaters and scarves of plaids and stripes.

These unexpected colors lend an air of optimism to the start of a new year. The Louis Armstrong classic “What a Wonderful World,” (written by Bob Thiele and first recorded in 1967),  has been on my mind. It’s a hopeful song, and I’ve been noticing how much it uses color to convey its positive outlook. Green trees. Red roses. Blue skies. White clouds. Even a rainbow.

The emphasis of those particular colors resonates with how our eyes work and with important cultural symbols.

The human eye has red, green, and blue photoreceptors that react to lightwaves in the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The actual perception of color occurs in the brain, and all the colors the human eye sees result from mixing red, green and blue light in various proportions. If you’ve got a computer monitor or television, you may already be familiar with how colors can be created using percentages of red, green and blue. White light results from combining all three colors. If you omit one, or even if you get them out of balance, you see a different color, not white.  To get a rainbow, you start with white light and separate it into its constituent parts. Isaac Newton demonstrated this during the late seventeenth century in experiments using a prism.

Getting back to the imagery in Louis Armstrong’s song, tree leaves appear green because human eyes perceive the wavelengths of the light they reflect as green. Chlorophyll in the leaves absorbs light at other wavelengths for use in the process of photosynthesis. Red flowers reflect the wavelengths we perceive as red. The sky is blue because the chemical composition of earth’s atmosphere scatters blue wavelengths of light more efficiently than the other wavelengths. As a result, those are the photons that that enter our eyes.

But what do the colors mean? Different cultures have different perspectives, and most colors carry more than one connotation. Within the context of Armstrong’s song, it seems to me that green symbolizes life and growth. Red stands for love and passion. Blue reminds us of loyalty and faithfulness. Combine them and you get white, signifying purity, innocence and virtue. The colors of the rainbow suggest the diversity of the human family.

It seems somewhat ironic that white — a color often associated with concepts such as goodness, incorruptibility, and even piety — cannot be created by any single wavelength of light standing alone. Although the color white carries the inference of being unadulterated, uncontaminated, and unpolluted, its attributes can be created only when dissimilar segments blend together in harmony. Pure white requires all of its constituent components or it isn’t pure. If a color intended as white omits any of its red, blue, or green, the hue becomes tainted, tinted, and impure.

And that leads me to my wishes for the new year.  My hope for the coming year is that we will find it within our grasp to fashion a wonderful, colorful world where we all shine together.

KAREN BELLENIR has lived in Farmville since 2009 and blogs for Pier Perspectives (PierPress.com) She maintains an archive of columns at www.KarenBellenir.com and is editorial director for Wordwright LLC providing services to authors, publishers and print and electronic publications (www.Wordwrightllc.com). Her email is kbellenir@wordwrightllc.com.