Re-imagining the Rainbow

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One of my favorite radio shows is Radiolab. Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich are fantastic storytellers, and they always tackle unique topics that usually have a scientific bent. I recently listened to an old episode called “Colors.” I bet you can guess what it’s about!

One thing I learned, which I could not wait to share with anyone who would listen, is that the mantis shrimp has 16 types of cones in its eyes. SIXTEEN! This is even more impressive when you learn that humans only have three types.

Cones are photoreceptor cells in our eyes that help us perceive color. There are millions of cone cells in our eyes. Humans have red, green and blue cones, which allow us to see those colors, along with orange, yellow and violet.

Dogs only have two cones (green and blue), and butterflies have five. Then, there is the mantis shrimp. I can’t stop thinking about how remarkable the world must look to this unassuming crustacean, which can see colors we’ve never even imagined!

This may be old news to some. After all, inspired by Radiolab’s story, Matthew Inman created a viral comic on aforementioned mantis shrimp for his website The Oatmeal. You can even buy an “All Hail The Mantis Shrimp” shirt from his online shop.

Still, I know I rarely appreciate how and why I see the world the way I do, and this episode served as a good opportunity to give it some thought.

Shortly after I listened to “Colors,” a friend posted a link to a color test on Facebook. The test, created by X-Rite, asks you to arrange shades of colors in hue order, and gives you a score that tells you “how well you see color.” My coworkers and I took the test, and I was pleased to discover that I have a perfect “color IQ.” But, what does that really mean?

Well, according to X-Rite, the test is based on the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue Test, which is designed to measure an individual’s color vision. Many people have color vision deficiencies that make them “color blind.” In people who are color blind, one of the three cones is either inefficient or missing. Though it is difficult to find definitive statistics on the prevalence of color blindness, X-Rite says that 1 out of every 255 women and 1 out of every 12 men “have some form of color vision deficiency.”

Now, I know I’ll never be able to see the world in as many stunning shades as the mantis shrimp, but I will appreciate the brilliance of my surroundings a bit more.

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