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Stop This Absurd War on the Color Pink

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This dog does not exist

Last week Robert Krulwich, a co-host of the wonderful program Radiolab, Pluto’d pink. In a blog post he noted that pink doesn’t occupy a slot in the familiar colors of the rainbow—there’s no P in Roy G. Biv. From this, he concludes that pink does not really exist:

That’s why pink is an invention. It’s not a name we give to something out there. Pink isn’t out there.

True, no single wavelength of light appears pink. Pink requires a mixture of red and purple light—colors from opposite ends of the visible spectrum. Easy enough to do, and no seeming threat to pink’s ontological status. (Although this property does imply that the laws of the universe have conspired against pink lasers.)

The trouble begins when Krulwich imagines the visible spectrum curling up into a circle, with pink the missing slice between red and purple. “Pink happens when the red and violet sides get together, but they don’t get together—which makes pink an act of wishful thinking, or, to put it bluntly—pink is a made up color,” he writes.

Perhaps you are as confused by this statement as I am (and, I suspect, Krulwich is). He cites as evidence a short animated video from the ordinarily great Minute Physics team. I’ve embedded the video below so you can watch for yourself, but the important part for our purposes is their explanation of where pink comes from:

If you try to roll up the rainbow to make a color wheel, there will be a gap between red and violet. That’s where all of the rest of the light in the universe is supposed to go—radio waves, microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet, x-rays, gamma rays and so on. But since we can’t see any of those wavelengths, we replace all of that hidden grandeur with pink.

This explanation is so muddle-headed and absurd that I hardly know where to begin. The classical electromagnetic spectrum extends from a wavelength of zero meters all the way up to infinity. How is one to connect those two ends? And even if one could, adding two (or more) invisible wavelengths together would never produce something visible. Infrared light plus ultraviolet light is just that—a combination of infrared and ultraviolet. They do not average out to yellow.

On a more fundamental level, however, Krulwich is right. Pink is not out there, because no color is really “out there.” The world is full of electromagnetic radiation, and the only intrinsic properties that this radiation possesses are physical ones such as wavelength and intensity. Color, on the other hand, is all in your head. “Color is not actually a property of light or of objects that reflect light,” wrote the biologist Timothy H. Goldsmith in his 2006 Scientific American article What Birds See. “It is a sensation that arises within the brain.” My colleagues at Scientific American Mind have for years been elucidating the ways in which the optic system converts electromagnetic radiation into color, a mysterious and fascinating process (and one that can go wrong in interesting ways). Recent research even indicates that people can be made to see “forbidden colors“—greens that are tinted red, or blues that appear yellow.

Pink is real—or it is not—but it is just as real or not-real as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

The reddish green question will have to wait for another day.


Photo by jonner on Flickr.

About the Author: Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of space and physics coverage at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @mmoyr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. bjnicholls 5:21 pm 03/5/2012

    Yeah, that’s not even wrong.

    The color wheel is a model of perception, not a map of the spectrum. And pink isn’t even a “tween” color, it’s a tint. Specifically it’s a tint of the color we call red where something is reflecting mostly white (white being mixed light colors and pink being white light with a little more intensity in the red color range). The color they seem to be talking about is what we call “fuschia” or “magenta” or similar purplish hues that are a mix of the colors we call red and blue. Brown isn’t a color of light either, nor is gray. Color only maps to a range of light frequencies in a particular limited definition of color.

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  2. 2. Derick in TO 5:57 pm 03/5/2012

    Right on bjnicholls – who’d of thought that a basic knowledge of visual arts would help correct inaccuracies on SciAm…

    Maybe they should get their illustrators to start proofreading. Hell, any proofreading would be welcome around here!

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  3. 3. vmfenimore 6:15 pm 03/5/2012

    Thank you bjnicholls. I wanted to say what you say but don’t have the scientific knowledge. In my words it was more like “red plus white is pink”. Fuschia is between red and blue on the rainbow plus white.

    Wow I really needed to draw on my elementary school science for this one. Thanks SA for allowing me to feel superior today.

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  4. 4. Monki 7:33 pm 03/5/2012

    I’m tempted to start a war on the misspelling of COLOUR as COLOR in some places.

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  5. 5. cbr346 8:33 pm 03/5/2012

    o, i feel dumb now, i thought pink occured when slightly more red energy existed in the full spectrum of white light–silly me.

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  6. 6. MadScientist72 9:25 am 03/6/2012

    @ Monki – It’s not a misspelling. Color is the way it’s spelled in the United States. After the Revolution, Noah Webster wrote a new Americanized dictionary which adjusted the spellings of many words to make them more logical. For example:
    Getting rid of the superfluous U’s in words like colo(u)r, hono(u)r, flavo(u)r, etc.
    Moving the E from the end of words like fibre, centre & theatre to the spot in the word where you actually hear the sound – fiber, center, theater.
    Dropping the silent UE from words like dialog(ue), demagog(ue) & catalog(ue).
    changing c’s to K’s & S’s to Z’s to make pronunciations unambiguous in words like skeptic (sceptic) and realize (realise).
    Eliminating AE & OE from words where E is phonetically sufficient, like h(a)emophilia & am(o)eba.

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  7. 7. Gizhy 11:29 am 03/6/2012

    How is it that the dog doesn’t exist!?

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  8. 8. B. Miller 3:56 pm 03/6/2012

    Valis shoots pink lasers.

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  9. 9. brynnscott 4:41 pm 03/6/2012

    I would agree that some shades/hues/whatever seem to only appear in paint catalogs or other “not real” places, but to call a color/shade/hue that is frequently seen in the natural world (as in flowers or minerals) not real is pedantry at best. Morganite crystals and numerous roses, hyacinths, etc, (including “pinks”) are not invented. Pink is a term for a family of hues that are found in nature.

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  10. 10. PeterT 6:33 pm 03/6/2012

    Nonsense – Where is brown or gray in the spectrum? How about mauve and taupe? There are no earth-tones in the spectrum! And we see them all-about us!


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  11. 11. Rimalucy 6:35 pm 03/6/2012

    Hi – I think the whole thing is based on the wrong premise to begin with… pink is made by mixing red and white, not red and purple (that would be fuschia at best), so it seems a bit silly to be arguing about it here.

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  12. 12. MadScientist72 9:10 am 03/7/2012

    @ Rimalucy – Agreed. The author should stop putting out the absurd idea that there’s a war on pink at all. Pink is properly defined as a tint. Here are some definitions for those who are a little unclear:
    Hue = “pure” color, as it appears in the spectrum or on a standard color-wheel
    Tint = hue + white (aka pastel)
    Shade = hue + black
    Tone = hue + white + black = hue + grey
    Color = doesn’t have an “offical” definition & can be used as a catch-all for hues, tints, shades & tones or as a synonym for hue.

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  13. 13. sciencegoddess 6:51 pm 03/7/2012

    And to think I thought this was going to be a post calling an end to vilification of the color pink because marketers are selling pink chemistry sets for girls.

    I have no need to restate what others have stated and MadScientist72 properly defined. Pink is a hue of red plus white.

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  14. 14. bucketofsquid 4:41 pm 03/9/2012

    I’m pretty sure that Pink is a singer. The dog might exist however, it should not exist! Doing that to a living animal is just plain cruel. Is that picture some kind of Lorax advertizement?

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  15. 15. Billyatams 10:51 am 03/10/2012

    Pink does not exist! In the one true pallette are the colors: British Racing Green, Ford Racing Blue, Fire Engine Red, Dark Warm Beer and the Mother of all Colors: Mustang Stripe White. Anything else is a construct intended to sell more purses and lingerie.

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  16. 16. Jay-Z 12:54 am 03/11/2012

    Light is wave and particle.So maybe the particle not the wave have an interaction and induce the production of pink.

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  17. 17. thepixinator 8:25 pm 03/12/2012

    Pink lies in the ethereal gateway between Light Color and Pigment Color, wrapping itself around your brain like the tendrils of the Morning Glory, daring you to admit that you like it just as much as you like British Racing Green.
    Either that or its existence can be proven defacto by the existence of

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  18. 18. dankd 10:10 am 03/13/2012

    There’s apparently a real physical phenomenon behind this confusion: the red-sensitive L-cones in human eyes have a little secondary bump of sensitivity in the indigo range, around 445 nm, so those colors appear more “reddish” than colors in the blue range at 475 nm wavelength. That’s why we have this intuition that the spectrum curves around into a wheel. So if I understand correctly, we can experience indigo either by being exposed to a single wavelength at 445 nm, or by being exposed to a combination of blue and red light.

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  19. 19. silvrhairdevil 1:18 pm 03/15/2012

    I’ve seen pink light – at sunset, through clouds. Or you can take a pink gel and place it over your floodlight.

    I’m taking this article as a spoof. Science should not actually be confused over the difference between the Additive and Subtractive Theory of Color.

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  20. 20. Retro Renovation 2:40 pm 03/18/2012

    Yes, I am also confused about this whole tempest in a pink teapot. Everyone know: Red + white = pink. And: Save the Pink Bathrooms!

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