It has not, for some considerable time, suited me to mention that I spent a sizeable amount of my life in love with a set of puppets.

I was always  a Gerry Anderson fan. An action girl at heart, I eschewed the glittery shoes and pretty dresses for early science fiction for youngsters.

‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’ followed the adventures of a set of guardians of the earth who must battle a Martian race.

They were based at Cloudbase Headquarters: and they were led by a total heartbreaker, purportedly modelled on Cary Grant, named Captain Scarlet.

The characters, though puppets, are timeless, with the colours of the spectrum as their names. Captains Blue, Magenta, Brown, Grey and even Ochre form a tight-knit team. The Doc gets to be Captain Fawn.

Colonel White is the purer-than-the-driven-snow commander: and the baddie is, of course, Captain Black.

What a master stroke, to use colour in such a blatant way. For in fairy tales since time immemorial, the palette of human behaviour has been signified by storytellers’ use of the spectrum.

Captain Black was preceded by black hearts a-plenty, hearts of darkness from the Sleeping Beauty’s evil fairy to the master of Transylvania.

Scarlet, the intrepid, walks in the footsteps of a little girl who chose to step out into a strange forest in the face of danger and into the teeth of a wolf.

And Colonel White is far from virgin territory: Snow White was a leader-in-waiting, faultless and found fault with: and as recently as the twentieth century, a grey conjuror of magic tricks and fireworks became a white wizard under Tolkien’s tutelage.

We see colours and we use them to make sense of our thoughts.

And yet colour itself, when we deconstruct it, seems an illusion.

“We don’t actually see the colours,” my husband tells the children sagely. “What happens is, we see the light reflecting off the other things in the world, and the light travels to our eyes.”

“Your blue may not be the blue I see”, he adds. “Your scarlet might be entirely different to mine.”

It makes it all sound clinical, doesn’t it? And yet, come closer, and watch the miracle of colour in all its complexity; and the path of light from the sun to our very perceptions seems like a vast epic journey, though it takes but an instant.

Because we are talking about wavelengths here.

Light is just one form of energy which behaves in waves. It oscillates, like a dog’s tail only wavelike, which a dog’s tail isn’t.

And the length of the waves can be short, and it can be longer. The cells in our eyes can only pick up certain lengths.

Let’s see if I can get this right: the shortest waves (visible to us) are violet. A bit longer and you get blue. Then up through the wavelengths – through green, yellow, orange and red.

You bet red is a high energy colour. It is also the highest frequency, with big, powerful waves going like the clappers. Now you know why a red dress can have such an effect.

And calm, calm blue? It’s right down there, slow joe crow, reflecting light from those pretty bluebells at 490-450 nanometres.

Green has just the right pace for measured, relaxing achievement. Hence green rooms, which reflect light of the right frequency to calm a performer before they go out on stage.

White isn’t there, because it’s constant: it’s always there. When you see all the frequencies together, they are white.

And then we come to black.

Black is the absence of light. Our little spectrum monitor, the eye, is not able to fire up because there are no waves we can see with our eyes. It is where colour isn’t.

In 1561, an extraordinary child was born to the keeper of the seal for Queen Elizabeth I. His name was Francis Bacon.

Elizabeth didn’t like him much, But James I did. He rose to be Lord Chancellor, but he was also a scientist, seeking proof for the myriad hypotheses of the day in the light of the numerous discoveries of the age.

Controversy and allegations of bribery ended his career: but what interests me is a clear-sighted phrase contained in a series of essays he wrote early on – in 1597.

One of them was called ‘Of Unity In Religion’.  A single phrase leaped out at me as I read his work, which is measured and well argued as a whole.

He wrote:”There be also two false peaces, or unities: the one, when the peace is grounded, but upon an implicit ignorance; for all colors will agree in the dark: the other, when it is pieced up, upon a direct admission of contraries, in fundamental points.”

All colours agree in the dark.

Ignorance, says Bacon, is darkness. When we cease to question, we cease to be animated with those vivid colours which light up our lives and our understanding of ourselves.

And all colour is absorbed into a fathomless darkness.

Newton baptised the colours we can see ‘the spectrum’ in 1704. More than a century before, Bacon speaks of the void it leaves behind when it is absent.

And so it seems for centuries we have intertwined two things: the physics of light, and a use of its constituents to explain our emotions.

And from a distance of four hundred years, Mr Bacon places our ability to differ, to question and probe, at the very fulcrum of our understanding of colour, and of life.

Vive la difference.

Image comes from NASA here

Thanks to Side View for another weekend theme- Colours – which got the little grey cells working 🙂 You can find her challenge here

26 thoughts on “Spectrum

  1. I had a friend called Ian Black and he came to my 8th or 9th birthday party. He put the whole party on hold when it was time for this TV program, and we all watched…(I’m sure he was addicted because of his name) then the party resumed.

    (I remember I hid in the laundry basket when it was hide and seek, but no one found me and I had to declare myself.)

    1. I was right back there with you, Pseu 🙂 Sounds like Ian quite robbed your party of colour for a while there. I wouldn’t like to be his Mum.
      You were too clever for them with the laundry basket thing…most of humanity needs a dose of the obvious. There’s a ghost called the Grey Lady who did the same but with a big oak chest, and was unfortunately unable to declare herself. Can’t remember where she hails from…

  2. I never heard of those puppets. a bit after my time in years, and as we didn;t have TV, a whole lot before it.

    as always a considered, entertaining and enlightening post, thanks Kate

    1. Should you have the urge to see Captain Scarlet the BBC page is here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/anderson/scarlet/

      My indispensible sub editor, Jan, who reads and corrects errors for me, has a husband who writes stories for the Captain’s many fans…we might be able to persuade her away from the cyber green room to tell us which are the best Scarlet sites…I’ll leave that in the ether…

  3. ‘All colours agree in the dark’ A wonderful concept; if only it were true of real life.

    I decorated my children’s rooms in bright colours; I’m convinced it made them smarter.

    1. Thanks for coming over to take a read, Adeeyoyo 🙂 Enchanting subject but, as you say, difficult to crystallise in a way it’s accessible. LOVE your piece on words, by the way. It always strikes me that each word paints a different shade of meaning. You encapsulate that so well.

    1. Penny, thank you 🙂 Wonderful words. I am beginning to see Bacon’s words as a mirror. They seem to say something different to each person who reads them. I found them astounding…

  4. This is a really thoughtful meditation. Allegedly newborns are most responsive to black, white and red (which may or may not be related to the materials they have to deal with and/or the heraldry of fascism).

    I have just one quibble – red has the longest waves and therefore the lowest frequency and energy in the visible spectrum, while blue has shorter waves that therefore come more frequently (since the speed of transmission is constant). Blue light also carries more energy, demonstrated by Einstein’s photoelectric effect (for which he got the Nobel). Hotter stars shine bluer, cooler ones more red. Our own is brightest in the green – some biologists will tell you that’s why chlorophyll reflects green most strongly but I don’t know that I buy that.

    And colourblindness is its own peculiar mystery. Why do dogs have only 2 colour cone types when birds have 4? There are clear advantages to 3 over 2 – you can tell when fruit are ripe – but I’d love to see, just once, what an owl sees.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

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