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

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…