Let’s learn about colors

Light gives our universe its beautiful hues

The world is alive with color. Let’s learn about where it all comes from.

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We live in a colorful world. Green leaves spring from the trees, flowers come in every color of the rainbow, and birds sport fashionably colorful feathers. We even live on a pale blue dot.

What creates all this color? Electromagnetic radiation — waves of energy moving through space. The waves come in different lengths. Cells in the backs of our eyes can perceive light as black, white, red, green or blue. The cells then relay that information to the brain — and we see the world in color. But we don’t see every color. Many wavelengths are beyond what humans can see.

Nature has come up with many ways to make colors. Leaves, for instance, get their green from chlorophyll — the same chemical that helps them make sugar from sunlight. Some beetles, though, are beautifully shimmery from tiny structures in their wings. Those structures bounce light off differently at each angle, producing iridescence. And peacock spiders use a combination of pigments and tiny structures to get their beautiful behinds.

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

Surprise! Most ‘color vision’ cells see only black or white: Many cells thought to sense color in fact read only whether something is white or not (10/19/2016) Readability: 6.7

Peacock spider’s radiant rump comes from teeny tiny structures: Pigments produce reds and creamy yellows, while nanostructures turns other parts blue (10/26/2016) Readability: 6.7

Let’s turn a genie blue: Here’s how nature could explain the bright blue hue of the genie in Aladdin (5/24/2019) Readability: 6.5

Explore more

Scientists Say: Wavelength

Explainer: Understanding light and electromagnetic radiation

Explainer: Rainbows, fogbows and their eerie cousins

Why rainbows can lose some hues

Flaming rainbows: Pretty, but dangerous

Word find

Markers often get their color from a mixture of two or more other colors. You can separate those colors with an easy experiment.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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