Science, Whimsy

Is my Colour the Same as Your Color? – POSTSCRIPT

At this precise moment, I am in my hotel room in New York City. I don’t think there is any question about that. The blinding chandeliers and equally luminescent wallpaper are among the distinctive hallmarks of hotel decor and the seemingly endless vertical slabs of grey concrete I can see from outside my window could only be supported by the legendary Manhattan bedrock.

No, as I say, there can be no question about where I am at this exact moment in time. This is, as they would no doubt have remarked back home, a fact. Indeed, the only subclause of that increasingly remote introductory sentence in which I feel there can be any room for equivocation is what exactly this precise moment is. The hotel clocks say it is five past six in the evening. My laptop believes it to be 5 past eleven at night. My watch seems to agree with the hotel clocks, but then again it has taken to displaying the day of the week in French so I don’t to know to what extent it can be trusted. And my brain – my brain is so confused that it has taken it nearly 200 words to express the simple phenomenon of jetlag.

You see, I arrived in this country yesterday (two days ago), and after going to bed at ten forty-five last night (a quarter to five this morning) and waking up at half past seven on a Thursday (Jeudi) my mind is as confused as the plot of any pharmaceutical commercial on American television. When the apocryphal poet wrote that his body may be in America, but his heart is in the highlands, I think I know what he meant.

All of which horological confusion serves as a flawless excuse for the following anachronistic behaviour. Because what I am about to do is write a small update to a piece I uploaded here early last week and hope to goodness that it makes sense.

About two days after writing my piece on the Horizon programme about Colour Perception, I happened to step into my local outlet of Daunt Books. While I was sorting out my regular fix, I saw a book by Guy Deutscher on the counter entitled: “Through the Language Glass – why the world looks different in other languages”. This seemed like a perfect accompaniment piece to my blog post and so I wasted no time in handing over hard cash for a copy.

In a word, the book is Brilliant. In two, it is Sublimely Paced. In three, it is Very Well Explained and in four it is Recommended By Stephen Fry. The topics covered and the train of thought underlying it were so familiar and so easy for me to follow that I accuse Professor Deutscher of using my blog post in August 2011 as inspiration for this 2010 bestseller. (I did warn you at the beginning – my conception of time is not at its strongest this pm).

One of the many things which makes it easy to warm to Professor Deutscher is his ironic literary style. In fact, I believe this may be the first work of non-fiction I have read in a long time whose author comes across as intentionally facetious. One particularly delightful example:

“In the absence of a definition for the overall complexity of a language, the statement that ‘all languages are equally complex’ makes about as much sense as the assertion that ‘all languages are equally cornflakes'” (p109)

How wonderful it is to come across a golden honey cluster like that instead of the dry rice crispies of philological pedantry one might have expected. One other, personal, reason for my favourable opinion of Guy Deutscher is that his mother tongue is Hebrew, the language in which I first started to speak and have since made very little progress. Given that many of his asides and comparisons rely on his own knowledge and experience of Hebrew, this helped keep a conspiratorial smirk on my face virtually throughout.

The real point I was hoping to make, however, (God, I do go on so) was that Deutscher covers the issue of colour perception with great flair and expertise. Not only is there a 10-page appendix on the physical process of colour perception which I think must count as a masterclass of brevity on a complex scientific topic, but a great deal of the book deals specifically with the issue of how language frames the visual experience of colour.

It would be rude of me to squeeze out of the book as much juice as I could find for the benefit of my readers and consequently deny Professor Deutscher the royalties earned from a further two or three sales. Consequently I will end by urging you to buy a copy of this book (which is currently being nominated for the Royal Society’s Winton Prize) and by wishing you a very good evening.

Or a good morning.

Or both.


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