The Universe of Discourse
Thu, 27 Apr 2006

Most of the academic part of high school is mercifully gone from my memory, dissolved together into a uniform blur of dullness. I wrote recently about one question I remember fondly from one final exam. I only remember a few specific exam questions, and probably that is the only one I remember because it was such a good question.

The one exam question that sticks most clearly in my mind was from my eighth-grade science class: What color do you see if you look at a yellow light through a monochromatic red filter?

I said it would look red, and was marked wrong. I argued my answer with the teacher, Mr. Goodman, but he would not give me credit. I puzzled over this for a long time, and eventually understood what had happened.

The word "yellow" is not a designation of physics alone; it refers to a certain experience, and is a perceptual phenomenon, not a purely physical one. It's possible to phrase the question to avoid this, but the question was not phrased in that way; it was expressly phrased in perceptual terms. A person who was achromatopsic might see a yellow light through a monochomatic red filter in a very unusual way.

To bring up the possibility of achromatopsia in the context of an exam is just nitpicking; I mention it only to point out that the question, as posed, must involve a consideration of human perception. And the objection I raised at the time is certainly not just nitpicking, because there are two entirely different physical phenomena that both go by the name of "yellow". The confusion of these two things occurs in the human retina.

The perception of color is a very complicated business, and I can't explain it in complete detail today. Partly this is because it isn't understood in complete detail, partly because I don't know everything that is understood, and partly it is because this article is about something else, and I want to try to come to the point eventually. So all my assertions about color perception in this article should be taken as metaphors for what is really happening. Although they give a correct general idea of a perceptual process that is something like what actually occurs, they are not accurate and are not intended to be accurate.

With that warning in place, I will now explain human color perception. Color is sensed by special "cone cells" in the retina. Different cone cells are sensitive to different frequencies of photons. Cone cells come in three types, which we will call "red", "green", and "blue", although all three of these are misnomers to one degree or another. The "red" cone cells are sensitive to red and yellow photons; the "green" cone cells to yellow and green photons. We will ignore the blue cones.

Photons with a wavelength of around 570 nanometers stimulate both the red and the green cone cells, and this stimulation is eventually perceived as the color yellow. But you can stimulate the cone cells the same way without using any light with a frequency around 570 nm. If you bombard the retina with photons of 650 nm, you stimulate only the red cones, and the light looks red; if you bombard the retina with photons of 520 nm, you stimulate only the green cones, and the light looks green. If you bombard the retina with both kinds of photons at once, both the red and green cones are stimulated, just as they were by the 570 nm photons. They have no way to know that they are being stimulated by two different groups of photons instead of by the same group, so the perception is the same.

This is why your computer monitor and your television can display the color yellow, despite having no source of yellow light. The monitor has little red phosphors and little green phosphors. When it activates both of them at once, the red and green photons stream out and get into your eye, where they stimulate the red and green cones, and you perceive the color yellow.

But from a purely physical point of view, this "yellow" phenomenon is not at all like the one that occurs when you look at a lemon or at a sodium vapor street light. The photons coming off the lemon are all of about the same frequency, around 570 nm. The photons coming off the computer monitor picture of the lemon are two different frequencies, some around 520 nm, and some around 650 nm. Your eye is not equipped to tell the difference.

Now, suppose you are looking at "yellow light" through a monochromatic red filter that passes only 650 nm photons. What do you see?

Well, if it was monochomatic yellow light, say from a lemon, then you see nothing, because the filter stops the 570 nm photons. This was Mr. Goodman's exam answer.

But if it was the yellow light that comes from a television picture of a lemon, then it contains some 520 nm photons, which are stopped by the filter, and some 650 nm photons, which are not stopped. You would see a red lemon. This was my exam answer.

The perception of mixed red and green light as yellow was part of the curriculum that year---we had had a classroom demonstration of it---and so it was fair game for the exam. Mr. Goodman's exam question, as posed, was genuinely ambiguous. There are two physical phenomena that are both described as "yellow", and he could have meant either one.

This confusion of two distinct physical phenomena by the retina is something we take for granted, but it is by no means inevitable. I often imagine our meeting with the aliens, and their surprise when they learn that all of us, every human on earth, are color-blind. They will find this out quickly, as soon as they see a television or a computer monitor. "Your monitor is broken," Zxaxgr will say.

"It looks all right to me," replies Flash Gordon.

"Is there something wrong with your eyes? The color adjustment for yellow is completely off. It is coming out as redgreen instead of as yellow."

"I see nothing wrong with the color adjustment for yellow," replies Flash.

"There must be something wrong with your eyes."

And yes, Zxaxgr is right. There is something wrong with our eyes. There is an intrinsic design flaw in our computer monitors, none of which can display yellow, and we don't care, because none of us can tell the difference between redgreen and yellow.

To empathize with Zxaxgr's puzzlement, imagine how strange it would be to learn that the alien televisions cannot display green; they display purple instead: purple trees, purple broccoli, purple frogs, purple flags of Saudi Arabia. And the aliens have never noticed the problem. You want to ask them about it, but your English-to-Alien dictionary doesn't have an entry for "purple". When you ask them about it, they say you're nuts, everything looks green, as it should. You learn that they have no word for purple; they just call it green, and eventually you find out that it's because they can't tell the difference between purple and green.

Whatever you're thinking now, that's what Zxaxgr is going to think.

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