At the risk of sounding like an 80s observational comic, it never occurred to me, until writing the derpy headline above, that Judy Garland sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in black and white. Thematically, it makes no difference — it’s not the rainbow’s spectrum of color that made the moment so much as its promise of a parallel (and Technicolor) universe just beyond. Of course, getting knocked in the head by a windowpane can help get one over the hump too. It worked for Dorothy. For that matter, a hit of windowpane acid, say, can also make one see color, just ask popular brainiologist Oliver Saks who, as he once recounted on NPR, “built up a sort of pharmacological launchpad with amphetamines and LSD, and a little cannabis on top of that” in an effort to see the color indigo. It worked (to provide context for this triumph, we must remember that this was in the days before the advent of Indigo Girls or even Indigo Children).
Saks was later able to replicate the phenomenon by simply listening to 17th century composer Claudio Monteverdi (though sadly, it’s difficult to get pure Monteverdi these days).
Indigo, controversially, is often omitted from “official” lists of spectral colors since it was allegedly shoehorned into the rainbow by Isaac Newton. He was trying to create a symmetry with the seven notes of Western music’s major scale, which makes indigo F natural, I suppose. The fact that one can perceive indigo at all, let alone hear it (like cyborg synesthete Neil Harbisson — watch his TED Talk and see why he can’t wear hats but maybe should), is due to the photoreceptors in our eyes called rods and cones. The former pick up light and motion and the latter are color-sensitive cells that respond to light wavelengths corresponding to red, green and blue. Dogs, for example, only have cones corresponding to green and blue, so their world looks like this:
Which is also how my colorblind father sees the world (that’s not my dad, by the way) and why it’s so easy to prank dogs and 8% of the male population by using red.
Can dogs and my dad see indigo? Not as well as humans since the color is about 18% red. Nor could they see Han Purple, an artificial pigment first synthesized by the Chinese 2,500 years ago. Until scientists were able to recently recreate the rare color (with an exotic mix of ingredients that stops just short of eye of newt), no one but the terracotta warriors who wore the color had seen it in its pure form. And there’s a reason Han Purple sounds like Star Wars by way of Teletubbies — it too is an admixture of fantasy, sci-fi and the psychedelically absurd. As a headline from io9 succinctly puts it, “This 2000-Year-Old Pigment Can Eliminate The Third Dimension.”
Apparently, quantum physicists from Stanford, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Solid State Physics exposed Han Purple to extreme cold and a high magnetic field and found that the structure of the color ‘loses’ a dimension. It’s a state called the “quantum critical point.” And it should be avoided lest one open a black hole. Besides, there’s a color for that and its got a name worthy of a bond villainess. Vantablack.
As Ian Johnson writes in the UK’s Independent:
"A British company has produced a' strange, alien' material so black that it absorbs all but 0.035 per cent of visual light… It is so dark that the human eye cannot understand what it is seeing. Shapes and contours are lost, leaving nothing but an apparent abyss.”
So, what’s messing with one’s rods and cones when staring into vantablack? Tubes — carbon nanotubes, each 10,000 times thinner than a human hair, that absorb all the surrounding light such that whatever is covered in it looks like a hole in reality. The cost of Vantablack is under wraps as are its military applications but one can surmise that using a bit of windowpane as a peephole through reality is cheaper. That is if there isn’t any Monteverdi to get you over the indigo rainbow.
Bonus: My name is Indigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.