In 2001 Karl Glazebrook and Ivan Baldry, astronomers from John Hopkins University determined that the average color of all the light in the universe was calculated to be pale turquoise, but they soon corrected their findings from turquoise to beige, due to a computer bug. “It’s our fault for not taking the color science seriously enough,” admitted Karl Glazebrook. He added that the discovery was actually just meant to be an amusing footnote to a large-scale survey of the spectrum of light emitted by 200,000 galaxies. The newly calculated color, described more formally as III E Gamma, looks like off-white wall paint (in Photoshop the RGB value is #FFF8E7). Glazebrook, however preferred to tag it as “cosmic latte.”
In that sense the Daoist classic text, the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) warns that dividing the world into the five colors (black, white, yellow, red and blue) would “blind the eye” to true perception saying, that we would all think so much more clearly if we didn’t divide the world at all.
Confused? If ‘cosmic latte‘ is now a natural or synthetic color, I remembered that mixing all colors would lead eventually to black, but that black also represented the monochrome (or color-blind) philosophy of the Daoists.
Tracing the history of natural pigments and dyes, Victoria Finlay describes in her travel book “Color” that conceptually, for Daoist artists 1000 years ago, black ink did contain all the colors, just as in Zen philosophy a grain of rice contains the whole world.
So in terms of colors, the greatest artist should be able to make a peacock seem iridescent, or a peach seem pink without using any colored pigments at all. Black was the color for the gentlemen artist, who combined the skills of poetry and painting, and who wanted to portray the landscape of the mind, not of the eye. Su Dongpo, a Chinese scholar from the 11th century, was criticized for painting a picture of a leaf bamboo using red ink. “Not realistic”, his critics said gleefully. “Then what color should I have used?” he asked. “Black, of course”.
There are no true black dyes. There are black pigments – charcoal is one, soot another – but pigments do not tend to be soluble in water, so it is hard to fix them onto fabric.
Puritans emerged in Europe in the 17th century and for true Protestant symbolism true protestant Black was needed. At that time many people dyed clothes in several vats – blue, red and yellow – until blackness was achieved. However, that was expensive. Just in time ‘Campeachy‘ logwood from the New World was marketed as good ingredient for both red and black dyes. Sooner rather than later this led to a logwood war fought between the British and the Spanish for logwood shipment rights, meanwhile pirates kept the shipments going, being paid with rum and whorehouses in the Caribbean. At the end (now called) Belize went to the British and many Belizeans today are descended from slaves who were forced to cut down this heavy dye wood … for no other reason than to help Europe be more black and pure.
I assumed the cosmic color would be if not black then at least yellow, as it is the color of light, or more accurately according to a Bihar yogi in Monghyr, India: “Yellow is the light in nature. It invites the soul, as black protects the soul; … the thing about yellow is that it has to be purified“. Victoria Finley was on the search for the yellow paint of the gown of the blue-skinned Hindu god Krishna, the playboy incarnation of the Supreme God Vishnu; personally I was on the quest for the natural yellow dye of my last year’s summer dress.
Monghyr piuri is an Indian yellow animal dye or pigment, but probably only a legend, according to which the dye was collected in a town called Monghyr, where the cows were fed mango-tree leaves and then their urine was supposedly used as color. There was never a confirmation nor any local recollection of that tale according to Victoria Finley.
Another pigment in use was Orpiment that means ‘Gold pigment‘, and contained arsenic, was thus quite poisonous, but this didn’t stop Javanese and Chinese from using it as medicine in small quantities.
Gamboge yellow, still comes mostly from Cambodia and Krishna’s yellow gowns were probably painted with this pigment instead of the more whiffy version from Monghyr. It comes from garcinia hanburyi – a tall tree related to the mangosteen. The paint is the resin, extracted similar to rubber. A gamboge collector makes a deep cut in the trunk, places a bamboo beneath the gash… and returns the next year. Gamboge is also one of the most effective diuretics in nature.
Saffron, the most colorful spice in the world grows as purple crocus fields all over the world. However saffron is not used as a dye, a false assumption contributed by the fact that Buddhist monks wear ‘saffron’ colored gowns. Saffron has been grown since 500 BC in Kashmir, which now produces less then a tonne a year. It has been grown all over the planet even in North Wales (Saffron Walden). Iran is probably now the largest producer; 170,000 flowers make one kilo of saffron, which means Iran’s annual production involves 28 billion flowers, 1/2 million people help to pick the flowers. Each kilo can be sold for $700, by the kilogram it is the most expensive spice, but a gram should last most cooks several months.
After reading all this I can’t help to somewhat feel relieved that we now have synthetic pigments and dyes.
But Glazebrook‘s study revealed something more: because the stars (which formed 5 billion years ago) would have been “brighter” in the past, the color of the universe changes over time shifting from blue to red as more blue stars change to yellow and eventually to red giants. These too will eventually change into black holes.
So does that mean cosmic latte will turn into cosmic espresso?