A Technologist’s Travels and Travails with the Colour Green – Michigan Quarterly Review

A Technologist’s Travels and Travails with the Colour Green

Sylvia Chan reads parts I and IV from “A Technologist’s Travels and Travails with the Colour Green” for MQR‘s Summer 2022 Virtual Launch Reading

I. A 21st-century colour confusion: “green” lights are not green

The technologist that is me is obsessed with colours, often struck by colour confusions, and especially with the colour green.    

Oh, and did you know that “green” lights are not green?  

No, this is not a trick question meant only for the nerds.  

It has nothing to do with traffic lights, either, I may add.  

“When it turns red?” offered my differently wired Japanese friend who is very curious as to why I am asking her the question.  

Is this an Alice-in-Wonderland type of question then? Something like the Mad Hatter reminding Alice that, even if she’s had nothing yet, she can always take more?  

No, that’s not it, not mathematics à la Alice.  

And no, I am not talking about how in the Japanese language there are at least two words for “green” – ao (blue-green) and midori (green) – or how the line between green and blue is somewhat more blurred. Those topics are (colourful) food for more (colourful) thought for another time.  

It is the inner technologist – and not the inner linguist – who is having these colour confusions: the actual colours of the LED lights that are generally considered “green” lighting are actually not always the colour green; “white” LED lights are in fact made up of three colours: red, green, and blue.  

That’s right, and that’s why “white LED” lights are known in the trade as “RGB.”  

The colours red, green, and blue are the light emitted from the “band gaps” of materials underlying the LEDs, and the “whiteness” of the light comes from the three colours combined. 

(Some LEDs are made of blue light with a yellow substance called phosphor on top.) 

And so the intensely white LED lights that I – and you, and we, and they – see are simultaneously green (energy saving and environmentally friendly) and not green (physically not green), made from emissions of red, green, and blue optical wavelengths.  

A wonderful colour confusion for the colour-obsessed technologist. Me. 

IV. And blue is the new green 

My latest obsession is a new and unusual paint. It is a new blue paint, a brilliant new blue, the first vivid new blue available in 200 years. And it is creating yet more colour confusion! 

The Financial Times reliably informed us that scientists have discovered a new blue compound that has thrilled the art world. Named “YInMn Blue” after its constituent elements (yttrium, indium, and manganese), the new material’s unique crystal structure absorbs red and green wavelengths of light and reflects blue ones. 

This is thrilling not just for me, the colour-obsessed technologist, but also for the art world because blue pigment has not been easy to make: originally made by grinding the semi-precious mineral lapis lazuli, blue has been a treasured colour that is not often found in paintings before the 18th century because the pigment called “ultramarine” was hard to get and very expensive. And so it became important to find a way to make blue, and the first man-made pigment was blue.

Cobalt blue, a tint common to Chinese porcelain (for example, from Jingdezhen) and the last new complex inorganic blue pigment to be commercially manufactured, is a mix of cobalt and aluminum oxides but is toxic. The blue glaze in Japanese pottery that is a similar blue and is known as the gosu slip is often mixed with green tea to aid in the smoothness of application. Prussian blue, associated with the term “blueprint,” can fade.  

And so a brilliant new blue made from a stable, non-toxic material is a welcome and undeniably exciting discovery! But, wait, setting the heart of the technologist racing is its property of reflecting ultraviolet wavelengths: this means it can be used as roof paint to keep buildings cool. I guess this means a building can be made “green” by painting it blue!With this new blue paint as the latest energy-efficient building material, I the technologist can definitively say that blue – my favourite colour – is the coolest colour. Blue is the new green. 

For more from the Summer 2022 issue of MQR, you can purchase the issue here.

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