Monday, November 26, 2007

The Meanings of Color

Some more contemplations on color and culture. Color can be useful for helping to distinguish between unripe, ripe, and overripe fruit; threaten or warn; distinguish between types of prey (which kind of beetle is tastier); and attracting mates; to mention but a few uses, and thus reasons for, the ability to see in many colors. For creatures who can see in color and find it useful, and who develop advanced sentience (including the ability to think in abstract terms), there is a probability that they will assign metaphorical meanings to color as well.

Some of this was mentioned in the Color of Life post; think of what various colors mean to us: yellow means warmth, light, day, energy - it is a positive color; red is connected to blood, and often means life, and from spilled blood, sacrifice or death; blue is a color of coolness, water, and sky; black is the color of night, mystery, and death, and of course green is for food, sustenance, fertility, serenity, and life.

Around different stars, these colors could easily take on other meanings. Around a hot blue star, blue may not be a color of coolness. The sky may very well be blue, with a brighter blue spot for the sun - which could be interesting. Think about what if our sky was yellow? Our yellow sun would be this bright part of the yellow sky, a bright spot that moved. Maybe we wouldn't be able to tell exactly the boundaries of the sun and so not, at first, recognize it as a self contained body circling the Earth, but instead just a brightness that moves across the sky.

So too, possibly, for some planets circling a blue star (a B class star - O class stars are also blue, but being the most massive stars in the universe, nd can not form planets due to the photoevaporation effect). Blue stars tend to be extremely hot and bright - the star would be this large very bright blue spot in the sky, the sky being a gradient from somewhat darker blue at the horizon, moving to lighter and brighter blue at the center of the bright day light. The world would be bathed in blue. Plants could be fuchsia, or even purple, in color. Oceans would have fuchsia or purple algae like plants in it, giving the seas there a violet or purple tint.

It is possible that some planets around F-stars would be home to plants with blue and blue related hues. Creatures trying to conceal themselves would develop blue skin colorations (Andorians?). That could either elevate blue to some mythic status, or because it is so common, other, more rare, colors would hold greater value.

Another possible result may be that some creatures, especially the carnivores, may find being color blind an advantage - with everything awash in blue, the ability to detect differences in brightness and texture would become more important than color itself (see the post Color Blindness Advantages - What Drives Color Range? for more information). Maybe blues would be seen in grayscale, while the other, more rare, colors are seen as they are. To such beings, the day time sky would appear a bright light grey, with the night sky black - and as the day turns to night, the sky changes in a sliding gradient from very light grey to ever darkening grey, and finally to black.

On a planet with black plants (possibly on a planet circling a dim, red class M star, the most common star in the universe), black could come to represent life (literally to the primitive sentient mind and metaphorically to the advanced sentient mind) - the opposite of how many Earthlings view the color. And if black was food, sustenance, fertility, and thus life - then what of the black night sky? Think of how such a planet would look to human explorers - say a somewhat dim red sun in the sky (giving the appearance of constant approaching evening), in a crimson, fuchsia or magenta sky (*), bathing black plants with reddish light - what a demonic place it would appear to human eyes, a Dante planet. Yet, to the natives, those would be the colors that would bring peace, and calmness - it would be the colors of home. Red would mean life, as well as black. The night sky would be as important, color-wise, as the day sky. Space would always have this connection to plants, to food, to sustenance - even if subconsciously. So maybe such creatures would be less fearful of space - they would find a comfort being surrounded by the blackness like some people on Earth feel when in a heavily forested mountain, or dense tropical jungle - surrounded by the color of life.

Would primitive aliens on such a planet think of the night sky as being a large plant leaf that blocks the sun (but, like all leaves, has imperfections, imperfections that allow some light to sneak through - star light)? One of their gods could then be a plant god. And since plants need the sun, this is not an evil god, just one that is taking its turn soaking up some sun. Or maybe it is an evil plant-god (some plants are poisonous, after all) fighting with the planet's creatures for the life-giving rays of the sun, a battle that occurs every day-night cycle (ancient humans thought somewhat similar battles went on between the Sun and the Moon - brought to terrifying climax with solar eclipses, which gave the appearance of the Moon eating the Sun, and to which primitive humans tried to help the Sun by banging on drums or shooting arrows in the air at the Moon to drive the Moon away - which of course always worked!)

* Depending upon how much blue light the star also radiates, and how much ozone is in the atmosphere to scatter that blue light- while an M-star radiates red most strongly in the visual range, it doesn't mean it does not radiate any other color.


Berman, Bob. "Sky Lights." Discover Magazine. 23 Feb. 2007. Web. 22 Nov. 2007. <>.

"Breakthrough Method System for Understanding Ocean Plant Life." Earth Observation News. 1 Mar. 2005. Web. 22 Nov. 2007. <>.

"Extraterrestrial Landscaping." Discover. July 2007. 15. Print.

Meadows, Vikki. "Colors of Alien Plants." Astrobiology Magazine. 1 Oct. 2007. 22 Nov. 2007. <>.

Vu, Linda. "Planets Prefer Safe Neighborhoods." Spitzer Space Telescope. Spitzer Science Center. 3 Oct. 2006. Web. 23 Aug. 2008. <>.