Skip to main content

Bright Earth: the invention of colour – Philip Ball ***

It might seem that colour is too much of a physical property to be invented – but this is very much a subject open to debate, as the concept of colour – as opposed to the wavelength or energy of light – is certainly to a degree subjective. However Philip Ball’s chunky volume is not concerned purely with colour in an abstract sense but very specifically with the colour used by artists throughout the ages.
There is some fascinating stuff in here. For example, that until the 19th century ‘pink’ was not a colour at all, but was a type of paint in the same sense a lake (crimson lake etc.) was a type of paint. You could have green pink! But most of the pinks died out, leaving us with rose pink which is, of course, pink. How did little girls manage in pre-Victorian times without pink?
It is also sobering to the non-artist to realize just how much care has to be taken in the selection of pigments – and the nasty surprises that awaited artists who were too quick to try some new colour without being sure of its properties.
As always with Ball, this is a very detailed, scrupulously researched book. As if often the case with Ball’s work, the only problem is it tends to be just a bit too detailed, leading to sections that can be a trifle dull. It is indicative of the nature of popular science that when he is talking purely about pigments it’s quite easy to lose concentration, while he holds the reader much better when he is talking about particular artists.
This is without doubt a classic work on the subject (it is a re-issue: the book has been around since 2001), bound to be of interest to anyone who wants to explore the borderline between science and art, but I can’t give it any higher rating because it hasn’t quite got that page-turning zip of the best popular science.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …