What If We Could Change The Colour Of *Everything*?
Let's take a chromatic adventure into the future (and carefully ignore what Sean's wearing).
Hello! This is Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter about science, curiosity, wonder, and why these container ships are just floating in the sky like that’s a totally normal thing (which in fact it is).
And this season, it’s mainly about the bottomless weirdness of colours: how they work, what ways we use them, and how they sometimes get our minds in a right old tangle. We’ve looked at:
the visual superpower that might let you see a hundred times more colours than the rest of us…
the way that Ye Olde Times were, in fact, a riot of colour, including as far back as the ancient Greeks & Romans…
why Martian sunsets are blue, not red…
the tricky and absurd business of inventing your own colour…
why pink means a lot more than just “for women”…
…and how impossible colours can break your brain in some really delightful ways.
In a moment, I’ll be explaining why this colourful yet mind-flayingly ghastly image of the future is unlikely to materialise:
Yes, kids under the age of forty - that’s James Bond. Or rather it isn’t, because I doubt the Broccoli estate would have signed off on this particular look.
Anyway, all that horror will be explained in a minute, as narrated in person by yours truly.
But first - over on Threadable, thanks to a chapter on Helen Gordon’s terrific Notes From Deep Time, I just learned about plastiglomerates - the rocks that might come to define our era, and perhaps destined to be a popular building material of the future - and I’m more than a little obsessed.
If you’re on iPad or iPhone running iOS 12.4 onwards, or macOS 11.0, click the button below to join my reading circle (it’s totally free to do so)…
Apologies, Android & Windows users - Threadable’s not available for you yet!
…after which it should automatically take you to “Active Geology with Mike Sowden”. (If it doesn’t, trying signing in, going to “Home,” finding “All Circles” and swiping sideways until you find it.)
(And for everyone without an Apple device: I’ll be writing about plastic rocks soon, so I promise you won’t miss anything.)
So! Glass of wine at the ready, please, just in case I spring any more photos like that one on you. Here’s the question I’m going to try to answer today:
Hey, modern science - why can’t we change the colours of all our things yet?
One of the most fun things about watching old science fiction movies and TV shows is seeing what imaginative, bizarre, or just flat-out bloody awful clothes that the actors had to wear for the role.
Because, once the Hollywood of the Twenties and Thirties stopped assuming that people in the future will be wearing three-piece suits, below the knee dresses and golf knickers, it became a riot of racy speculation: lots of outrageously figure-hugging stuff in metallic-looking fabrics, with oversized utility belts and collars…really just an excuse for some fairly unhinged fashion experiments, in the same way scifi is a popular ‘what-if’ playground for sociologists, economists and so on.
And of course there’s the way scifi fashions broadly followed military uniforms, until Star Trek came along and stylishly blew all that out the water - although it’s interesting how the recent shows, particularly Star Trek: Enterprise, circled back to a more boiler-suit-worn-on-submarine look.
And then you have the Sixties and Seventies, where the raciness gets turned up to eleven: think Jenny Agutter’s multipurpose not-quite-a-dress in Logan’s Run, or just about everyone in Barbarella, or - whatever the hell Sean Connery was wearing in Zardoz (pictured above), which is sort of a full-body red nappy-like thong. And that was filmed in Ireland, which is not the warmest place in the world. Dear lord.
And then you have William Gibson’s kind of cyberpunk arriving in the Eighties, with that everything-mashed-together-as-jarringly-as-possible look, and then there’s the post-apocalyptic dystopian look where people are dressed in much the way I did in the Eighties - not because I was a visionary, just because I had no money or fashion sense. And so on.
But - I think it’s fair to say that while people in the future may wear less clothes, they will still be wearing clothes, Sean. (Dear god.) So part of science fiction entertainment is speculating about that - within reason, because, you know, asking actors to do their work in the equivalent of Sam Smith’s inflatable Brit Awards suit is a big ask, you’re probably not going to win an Oscar if nobody’s quite sure if you’re the right way up or not, or where you’re speaking out of. There are limits.
(Or maybe there aren’t, since this just cleared up at the Oscars? In which case, hooray, to hell with limits!)
But, like everything else, the fashions of the future are probably going to be pretty weird by today’s standards. For example, a recent collaboration between Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art resulted in the invention of something called Fabrican. It’s exactly what it sounds like: it’s spray-on clothing, or at least fabric. You spray yourself with a layer of these wet fibres, and as they dry they bond together, making a single piece of flexible, shaped fabric. Pretty amazing implications - not just for making clothes, but for mending them too.
And no doubt you’re going to have something akin to 3D printing of fashion on the go, where you can program your fashion for the day and it’s made for you in a sustainably disposable way - and a way that perfectly fits every contour of your body that day, so the rich people with their expensively sculpted physiques can show off every nook and crevice of themselves in the perhaps misplaced belief that it makes them interesting. Or maybe it’ll go the other way, and artfully shapeless, body-hiding clothing will become premium fashion. Who knows? I still dress like the penniless student I used to be, so I’m not really qualified to weigh in here.
But one thing’s been bugging me. What about the programmable nail polish?
You know, the type you can see in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall in 1990, where someone changes the colour of her fingernails by tapping them with some kind of hi-tech wand.
I saw this at the cinema, and I remember it got that special kind of laugh, that “LOL-but-also-wow-that-would-be-cool” mass snork of a sound that must be immensely satisfying if you’re the one who wrote it into the script. Because - wouldn’t that be cool? To change the colour not just of your fingernails, but other stuff as well? Of your clothes, of your car, everything?
So with all the incredible advances of the last thirty years, you’d think this would be a thing by now, especially considering how popular it would clearly be. So why isn’t it a thing?
In scifi terms what we’re talking about here is, more or less, stealth tech: anything that lets you change the apparent colours of a thing to allow it to fit in with its surroundings. Nature’s got this nailed already: as everyone knows, the chameleon has the ability to change colours to blend into its background, to hide from predators.
Except, well - everyone’s wrong.
From recent research, it seems this isn’t what chameleons are doing. They’re changing colour either to regulate their temperature - because chameleons can’t generate their own body heat, so they turn darker when they’re cold to absorb more heat, or vice versa - or they’re doing it to communicate, mainly to each other. Just ask anyone who has a chameleon as a pet, and they’ll tell you they can read the chameleon’s emotional state from the pattern of colours it’s wearing that day - and they’d probably be right.
But that’s not the only misunderstanding we’ve all had about chameleons. For a long time it was assumed that they used exactly the same colour-changing mechanisms as the octopus or the squid, namely: pigments under the skin that moved around according to the wearer’s desire. This is the classic model for changing colours: you basically paint a surface a different shade from just underneath, as quickly as possible. Nice and simple.
But there’s another way to change colour - by manipulating light itself. Reflected light. After all, what we perceive as colour is just the wavelengths of light that are reaching us that are either emitted or bouncing off an object. That’s why that thing looks that colour in that moment in time. The multicoloured sheen of a pearl, like the rainbow shimmer on the surface of a soap bubble, happens because the light is interacting with the intensely compressed layers of mineral platelets and organic material that’s lumped under the term “nacre” - acting like tiny prisms, and creating that pearlescent effect.
That’s this other kind of colour being produced. The same is true with the wings of some blue butterflies - shine a light directly through them from behind and you see they’re brown, but when normal sunlight hits them from above, the surface of the butterfly’s wing drastically alters the wavelength of the reflected light - and it appears an amazingly luminous blue.
This National Geographic Explorer video explains what’s going on:
That’s partly how chameleons do the chameleon thing. (They also use pigments, so they’ve got both avenues covered.)
Their skin has at least two layers: an upper transparent polymer, and a lower lattice of nanocrystals called iridophores. Normally they reflect one dominant colour, according to the wavelengths best reflected by the current shape of that lattice - but when these cells stretch and broaden, which is what a chameleon’s skin does when, say, it sees a rival of its own species, the colour that’s most reflected by these cells is changed, towards longer wavelengths, towards the red end of the visible spectrum…
And therefore, it looks like the chameleon changes colour.
Neat trick. But one that has huge implications for us.
Changing the colour of surfaces using pigments is pretty hard - how do you get them moving around? How do you move them fast enough? What happens if it springs a leak? As a long-term technological solution, it’s probably the hard way to do things. This is why we currently use a much more energy-wasteful method: changing a surface’s colour by making it emit light instead of reflecting it, which requires an input of power, like coloured LEDs.
But changing the colour of a surface just by deforming it slightly? Much easier.
In theory! Obviously this is all still insanely hard to calibrate and get working in a practical manner. But relatively speaking, the chameleon’s method seems a lot more wearable to us than anything else.
In 2019, the University of Cambridge created a way of doing this, using tiny particles of gold coated in a polymer shell, and then squeezed into microdroplets of water in oil. When heat was applied to them, these polymer coatings instantly squeezed all the water out of themselves and bunched inwards into tight clusters, taking these gold nanoparticles with them. The result: a differently-spaced lattice primarily reflecting a different wavelength of light, same way as a chameleon’s skin. And when it was cooled, the reverse happened - the water squirted inwards, the lattice expanded outwards - another colour was made. Just two colours for now, but with huge potential.
And when I say heat, I could also mean light. Sunlight. As soon as sunlight hits it, it changes colour in response to the intensity of the heat of that light. This could be an incredibly useful thing for the outsides of buildings for heat regulation. Just imagine it - on a really hot and sunny day, the outside of your home brightens up to reflect more heat away and keep the indoors a bit cooler, like the white-painted walls of homes in the islands of Greece - and on a bitterly cold day, it darkens to absorb as much heat as possible. Maybe even instantly, in response to the sun coming out from behind a cloud. Imagine seeing a whole street doing that, or a city, in response to a sunbeam. Wouldn’t that be trippy? Maybe too trippy?
(Here’s another way buildings might do it.)
And there’s clothing, too. Imagine outdoor gear that brightens or darkens automatically to help keep you warm, or a kind where you can just dial up the warming darkness a bit when you get a shiver down your spine.
But there’s research going on into both types of colour changing tech - the optical effect type and the pigment-based type. MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory has developed something they call PhotoChromeleon - a mixture of photochromatic dyes that can be painted or sprayed on, then activated with UV light, in a totally reversible way that can be done again and again, like a screen being refreshed.
In their words:
“After coating an object using the solution, the user simply places the object inside a box with a projector and UV light. The UV light saturates the colors from transparent to full saturation, and the projector desaturates the colors as needed. Once the light has activated the colors, the new pattern appears. But if you aren’t satisfied with the design, all you have to do is use the UV light to erase it, and you can start over.”
So maybe - going back to those sprayable fibres in a can - in the future you can get your “clothes” sprayed onto you in the morning, maybe as you step out the shower, and those “clothes” take the form of initially transparent or monochrome layers of these fibres, then you step into some kind of UV-flooded wardrobe with a screen at the back of it, which you use to scroll through all the possible looks you might want to adopt for the day, and press a button to get that painted onto you - in much the same way you dress your avatar in a videogame. This is already looking possible in a technical sense. Isn’t that wild?
But maybe we won’t do this at all, because it just feels wrong. Humans like wearing clothes that feel like, you know, clothes.. Or maybe it’ll just take a few generations. Or maybe we’ll all end up wearing thonged red nappies like Sean Connery in Zardoz. (Dear god.)
But that revolution in fashion will be nothing compared to what happens when science learns to alter human pigmentation.
The reason your skin is the colour it is is down to an amino-acid-derived polymer called melanin - primarily eumelanin, which comes in two distinct varieties, brown and black. These are responsible for the colour of your eyes, your hair and your skin. The more brown & black melanin you have working together, the darker-tinted you’ll be - and a lack of brown and an absence of black is what creates blonde hair.
The other important type of melanin gives flesh its pinkish tint - called pheomelanin. And it’s the combination of pheomelanin and eumelanin that creates all the colours of your skin all over your body, distributed via cells in your skin called melanocytes.
When those cells get clustered together instead of evenly distributed, you end up with clumps of colour - which we call freckles.
And when those cells get damaged, they can locally darken your skin. When I was in Greece a couple of decades ago I got a bout of the worst sunburn of my life on my face, and the result was patches of hyperpigmentation on my cheeks, essentially really big freckles, which I plan to get lasered off at some point, because it looks like I got into a brawl at the pub the night before, maybe not the best look for professional purposes and this is undoubtedly why I haven’t won a Pulitzer Prize yet. Literally can’t think of any other reason.
But - what if melanin was reprogrammable, like PhotoChromeleon paint? What if as part of your morning routine you also got to choose what skin colour you were wearing that day?
From a purely scientific sense, this is thankfully well outside the limits of current biotechnology, but it’s not hard to imagine if you extrapolate forwards a little wildly. And regarding keeping your skin safe from the sun, more melanin is a benefit…
But of course it wouldn’t be just a scientific issue. Not even close. Because, good grief, can you imagine how that would go down? Infinite yikes. Socially monstrous in all the dystopian ways. (Especially if it was too expensive to be affordable to anyone but the ultra-rich?)
And really, this is a window into what’s going on all along. Humans never use colours in purely cosmetic ways - or rather they do, but those cosmetics have deep meanings for all of us, even when those meanings were invented by us from scratch. It’s never going to be as simple as “just” changing the appearance of everything around us, and even ourselves. Our use of colour is tangled up with our negotiated identities in all sorts of fascinating ways - which is wonderful, because wouldn’t it be supremely boring if every colour meant the same thing everywhere, and therefore no colour really meant anything?
There’s no way of knowing what will actually happen until it does. But the visions of the future that depict everything in unchanging monochrome like a modern Apple store, perhaps unwittingly harking back to their famous dystopian advert from 1984, seem unlikely.
But then, look at how we’ve come to associate unpainted white stone with ancient grandeur, even though it’s largely a myth we’ve recently invented. Maybe that will continue, and bleed all the colour out of everything of high status? Except: for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction, and this is as true in fashion as it is in physics. So I can’t see it happening.
So the future will be exactly what the past has been: a constantly shifting mess of colours, and we’ll keep arguing over what those colours actually mean, because that’s how we’ll continue to make sense of them…
And hopefully none of it will be quite as strange as what we used to think the future might look like.
See you next time.
BONUS: this wonderful bit of magical trickery with a colour-related twist at the end, found via Lev Parikian’s superb Six Things newsletter:
Images: Ante Hamersmit; Womanizer Toys; TwinCitiesGeek.
Okay, bunch of stuff. Love the video at the end. Zardoz scarred me for life. Star Trek did have cool uniforms! I am not spraying clothes on myself. I can barely put on my dystopian clothes today, much less have the patience to spray myself. Yes, I read the part about they're being automatically sprayed on but I'm sticking with what I first imagined.
The first part of your article reminded me of those shirts that would change color in the sun back in the 80's. And mood rings. Now I've got to go look up how those worked. :D