How would you explain what color is to an 11-year-old?

This was the challenge posed by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science‘s ‘Flame Challenge‘ this year.

The finalists were announced today, and I learned a lot from looking at their entries. For anyone working on principle #1 of science communication, “Know your audience,” I think it’s worth checking them out. They all do a great job of something I struggle with: trying not to do too much in too few words. You can read the top 3 written entries and view the top 3 video entries here.

When paring down the mind-blowiest things I’d ever learned about color, it was hard to settle on a monolithic, pithy explanation. Especially considering that the 11-year-old judges had, in years past, reminded entrants that they are NOT 5-year-olds. Tough audience. It was a fun exercise, and I’m pleased to see that the Entry #360 also took an Umwelt approach–it’s a fun introduction to relativism in general, and I’m glad the tough judges looked favorably upon it. I relied on that and reprise of a Whorfian explanation I’d been polishing for Altered States. My entry is below, and for anyone still hurt over a parent’s refusal to pony up for that 96-crayon case, this one’s for you.


What is color?

We’re used to seeing in color all the time, so it’s hard for us to imagine life without it. Have you seen the Wizard of Oz? Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be Dorothy, going from gray old Kansas to colorful Oz? Well, that’s what it would be like for you if you were suddenly turned into a honeybee. Honeybees can see colors we humans can’t.

That’s because we have special detectors in our eyes that tell our brains what color of light is hitting our eyes. Even though a flower might look yellow to us, it could be bouncing other colors of light at us that we just don’t have the right detectors to see. Honeybees have detectors we humans don’t have, which may be why they’re so good at gathering nectar from different kinds of flowers.

If honeybees can see different colors, what about other humans? How do we know they see the same colors as we do? We all have the same detectors in our eyeballs, but people who speak different languages have different names for colors. For example, Russians have two different words for blue, and they can tell the difference between light and dark blue much faster than English speakers. This means that just learning the names of colors helps us tell the difference between colors with different names. You might even know different color words based on how your crayons are labeled.

We can’t change what detectors we have in our eyeballs, but if you want to know what it’s like to be a honeybee, try spending time with a box of 96 crayons. Just knowing the difference between violet and purple, or salmon and coral, might make you quicker to find a nectar-filled flower when it matters most!



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