Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 16: "Light and Color"
There’s an old saying in science, the science guy says. We don’t see things—we see light bouncing off of things.
This, of course, is more philosophical quandary than scientific law. Without color, does the world as we know it exist? The underpinning of which is simply: do we exist? Are we sure? How do we know?
In a case study he dubbed “The Disembodied Lady,” neurologist Oliver Sacks spent a lot of time considering the implications of these questions, all of them, and maybe especially the science guy’s very particular one. The case tells the story of a woman who at age 26, without warning, begins to lose her sense of proprioception: the brain’s awareness of the body’s very existence. She becomes, as Sacks put it, “body blind.” She can’t rise from her prostrate position on the bed, can’t lift her head or keep track of what her hands are doing—as soon as she turns even slightly to speak to a visitor, they float into the air and move wildly, without consequence or intention. Over time, with much physical therapy and constant practice, the woman learns to move again, to regain some semblance of control.
But this control never fully arrives, and life after a loss such as this is desperate. To compensate for her body blindness, her vision needs to work double-time: in order to use any individual part of her body, to move at all, she must look at that part with intent and mentally will it into action. Just describing it now is exhausting—to live it must be an exercise in ferocious patience. And, of course, the larger question remains: with no awareness of herself, does she exist, this disembodied lady? Is it enough to make a life, and what does that even mean? Without light, there is no vision; without vision, no nothing.
Without different colors of light, the science guy reminds us, we couldn’t see different colored things.
His torso’s wrapped in multicolored Christmas lights as he walks through the lab, explaining why it is you can see them at all, why you can differentiate one from the other. He holds a basketball up to the light: The white light’s hitting this basketball, but all we see is orange. He holds a plate of blue Jell-O up to the light: And white light’s hitting this blue gelatin dessert, but all we see is blue. You know copyright constricts him from coming out and saying Jell-O, but you’re disappointed he doesn’t do it anyway. The line’s so clunky without it.
Regardless: without different colors of light, we couldn’t see different colored things. Meaning nothing is any color, not really. We’ve all just agreed on certain perceptions and understood this as a good enough way to make a life. In fact, it’s the only way. You can’t understate this, and can’t knock it either. Just because color is nothing, doesn’t mean color is no thing, not really. Not ever.
The science guy is going for a drive when lights appear in his rearview. Seattle PD pulls his Subaru wagon to the roadside and approaches the window.
Hello officer, the science guy asks. Is there a problem? He hands the white-haired cop his license.
Yes, mister, uh—the officer glances at the ID—The Science Guy. There is. Your taillight is out.
Oh boy, I’m sorry about that. I’ll get that fixed right away. The science guy goes on to explain how funny it is that a light should go out, since he’s in the middle of making a show about that very subject. He introduces the officer to the cameraman. An exchange of friendly waves.
Oh sure, sure, the officer says, a little dismissive, a little impatient, but only, it’s clear, in service of the bigger issue. Hey, can I ask you a question? he says. What’s the deal with the green lights and the red lights?
It’s a questions that hardly makes sense, structurally, contextually, from just about any angle. The science guy explains how red, green, and blue are primary colors of light, how our eyes are especially sensitive to them, how green pops when it glows and connects to our brain to tell us Go, Go Now, This is Green. Et cetera.
The officer is impressed, thinks, This guy really does know his colors. He hands back the science guy’s ID, reminds him to get his taillight fixed, and sends him on his way. The entire transaction is brief, friendly, a little surreal, and totally innocuous. The science guy is visibly relieved, but it’s only for show. What’s he got to be nervous about?
The Seattle PD’s shirt is light blue. His hair is white. His skin is so light the sun reflects off its surface and washes out the right side of his face and scalp. The science guy’s Subaru is white. His bowtie is dark red. His leather jacket is black. His skin is light, darker from the shade the inside of his car casts as it protects him from the sun, but still it is light. Two men of light exchanging pleasantries, asking questions, teaching lessons, going through their days made of the light that envelops them when they stand directly inside of it. They really do know their colors, both of them. It is not no thing.
The science guy’s assistant is playing gumshoe. She sits at a wide desk in a room of strips of light filtered through drawn blinds. She wears a detective’s trenchcoat, a detective’s fedora, a detective’s stony gaze. She polishes a prism and waits for a case to find her.
There are a lot of colors in the big city, she says.
Most of the time, you don’t think twice about it. And then there are times you can’t stop thinking about it.
It means more than she means it to mean. It means everything. Most of the time, you don’t think twice about it. And then. Then there are times you can’t stop. A boy walks into her office, asks, Why’s the sky blue? The spell breaks, she jumps to take the case. Leaves the other mess behind.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.