The gemstone for September is sapphire, who knows why? (For that matter who made up the order of any of the 12 monthly gemstones, or put another way—to whose financial benefit? ) Well, I’m not even going to go there. I want to talk about the color blue and then to tell about a miracle, a true miracle, though the miracle, like the color blue itself, might lie in the eye of the beholder. (Miracle: from Latin miraculum ‘object of wonder’, from mirari ‘to wonder’, from mirus ‘wonderful’.)
Blue is a playful, shape-shifting color. “I’m blue,” we say, when we feel low, or “happy as a bluebird,” for up. We speak of the “blue skies” of good fortune, and “flying into the blue” when we feel utterly ecstatic. And yet there are only a few shades of blue in nature—unlike green which has so many hues that you’d think, when walking in the woods, that God would have run out of ideas for the palette.
Hold off on the miracle. We’ll come to that.
First, I want to talk about blue. All of us who love the Greek classics, The Iliad and the Odyssey, notice the curious lack of color. So strange is this that some scholars wonder if the people of 1000 or 1200 BCE were color blind. The poet speaks of “the color of iron,” or “black blood” and “the wine-dark sea” — and this is so pervasive that when I went to Greece I searched that clear turquoise water in puzzlement, expecting the Aegean to be a stormy wine-red dark. True, the Iliad refers to “rosy-fingered dawn,” so the poets saw rose and red. We find sixteen references to green, but not one single reference to blue.
Not long ago I was listening in the car (avidly!) to a radio talk about this very fact, in which the speaker (of course I don’t know who he was) mentioned how one scientifically-inclined couple purposely never told their little girl that the sky is blue (sometimes). By the time she was three, they had deliberately never pointed out the sky or mentioned the color, until one day the father asked her: “What color is the sky?” She looked into the clear blue and answered, “white.”
Of course the sky is often white (live in Paris and you’ll know what I mean), and at the horizon it is always lighter than directly overhead, but it’s curious, nonetheless, that unless you have no word for the color you cannot name it. Or perhaps you cannot see it.
Listening in the car, I didn’t catch the whole story. I can’t tell you whether she had ever, in all her three years, held a blue crayon or heard another child or day-care teacher name it blue, but I’m intrigued that apparently the early Greeks had no word for blue. Dark was the best they could come up with. The color of iron, of blood.
Sometimes, I dream in color. Sometimes I dream a color I have no word for at all. How can I see color when my eyes are closed? (Inside job.) One supposition is that the early Greeks had no word for blue until they found the substance that created blue dye for clothing—until they had a need for just this word. All of this is just to say again that it’s all in the eye of the beholder—beauty, sadness, happiness, physical sensations and spiritual awareness.
So, finally, we come to the miracle, and it has nothing to do with blue, but with green. I call it a miracle because I don’t understand it. No one understands it, really, not even the physicists. But like many things we don’t understand, we use the word with the same loose generosity in which we claim to understand anything we’re used to: “I understand is the sun comes up at 6:00,” we say without actually stopping to imagine our planet swinging in its elliptical gyre around a tiny star lost at the edge of an unimportant galaxy that travels at unimaginable speed, swirling among millions of others galaxies.
The miracle: OK. Listen. Light comes from our sun. The light or photons arrive (at the speed of light) in a spectrum of many different energies. Photons have a wave length; the higher the energy of the photon, the smaller the wavelength (Think of the strings of a piano, the higher the frequency or note, the shorter the string.)
The distribution in the spectrum depends on the temperature of the surface of sun that emitted them. (Isn’t it interesting that the surface of the sun is hotter than its core? How can that be?)
The largest distribution of photons are emitted in the green-yellow spectrum. (By the way, butterflies see more colors than any other animal on our planet. Sorry: back to my miracle.)
Plants have evolved to use sunlight as a source of energy (photosynthesis, right? Remember that in school?) Over billions of evolutionary years they developed sensitivity to green. (Which is itself wondrous.)
But now we come to the real wonder. Long before there was life on earth, there was water. Water is translucent, allowing light (from the sun) to enter, and the light that enters most just happens to fall on the green spectrum, which means that algae and simplest forms of plant life could form in water in the long-ago eons before any life began. It may be entirely accidental, but if the photons that penetrated water had been primarily blue, for example, the plants and life on earth could not have evolved, in the way they have. Maybe they would have become some other life-form, but life on earth as we know it, including gardens and forests and birds that eat the seeds and animals that eat the birds, and flies and maggots that eat the dead flesh, and bees that inseminate the almond trees and give us sweet honey—everything—including you and the way you’re dressed this minute, your worries right now—all our lives—depends on this simple fact that water is translucent, and allows through primarily photons that happen to be green.
If not, there’d be no life.
What luck! Coincidence? Happenstance?
I love that I do not understand. I love the mystery. I love the order and magnificence of this life we live on our beautiful planet, rocking through the stellar spaces, blown by solar winds. I love the miracles.
© 2018 Sophy Burnham