Hello! This is Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter about curiosity, science and wonder.
First up today: please go read this wise piece in Noema Magazine by my friend Henry about the relatively new science of awe - which culminates not with some Mission Impossible style stunt designed to wring out the maximum amount of awesome, but with a simple, everyday trip to the woods:
“With the onset of daylight, the birds grew raucous, then quieter. Every five minutes or so, their emissary, a red-breasted robin, landed on the balustrade to ponder my intrusion. As the day progressed, I started to see people walking along the main trail. But I realized with some delight that no one was coming up the side-path. Everyone was hastening somewhere else.
Some of the awe I felt that day was serendipitous: the oak, the robin, the modest overview effect granted by my elevated position. But I also found that I could will it into being simply by thinking about it. There was reverence in considering this ancient wood that had outlived the great felling, and the people — hundreds over time, I guessed — who had fought for its survival in defiance of urban sprawl.
Now and again, I felt that delightful shiver. It wasn’t full-blown reverie, a dance with the divine. This was gentle and self-conjured. It was awe all the same, though. The prescription was nothing more complicated than a simple eyrie, half a mile from home, and some time to sit still.”
In that piece, Henry interviews social psychologist Dacher Keltner, whose latest book, Awe: The New Science Of Everyday Wonder And How It Can Transform Your Life, was just released a couple of weeks ago.
Since I’d love to know more about this topic (I briefly touched on it in this newsletter last year) I’ve just grabbed my copy, and will report back in a future newsletter.
(To be honest, it really should be Henry doing that, because he’s written about awe for the New York freakin’ Times of all places, and also about his own struggle to rediscover awe through travel over at Aeon, home of some of the best and most curiosity-driven writing on the Web. However, my attempts to entice/bully him into starting his own Substack about the science of awe have so far been fruitless - but it’s still very early days in my psychological campaign of terror. Run harder if you like, Henry! It won’t help.)
Secondly: another update on a previous EiA newsletter - or rather a whole season, the one on fake maps and imaginary places…
Behold Null Island, where all the world’s mislaid geodata (including your lost runs on Strava) washes up.
“…if you dig into web maps and geographic databases, you’ll get the impression that there’s a lot happening at coordinates (0,0). Among other things: people running and cycling, cyberattacks, and a lot of Covid cases.
Welcome to “Null Island.” It doesn’t actually exist. But it shows up on countless maps as a default home for data that couldn’t be properly geocoded…
“There is this concept in geography that’s called liminal places; it means ‘between places,’” [geomatics researcher] Juhasz said. “If you go to an airport, it’s not a destination. It doesn’t really mean anything to you that you are at the airport, but still, it’s a physical place. Null Island is similar to that because it connects the imaginary to the real. Because in a sense it’s real: It’s in databases. And it can be mapped.”
Read about this fun weirdness at Bloomberg UK here.
So! Following the path of Lusty Gallants and Stanky Beans, it’s time to return to this season’s main topic: the science and human meanings of colours. (Here’s the season-opening overview on it.)
And I bet you have a lot of feelings about this one.
It’s 2015, and the state-owned Banca de Costa Rica (BCR) is taking a stand on behalf of its women customers.
For the first time, it’s opening new branches that exclusively serve women, under the name Banca Kristal. At the first place to open, the doorman is the only male employee: all the tellers, managers and other staff are women. There are cushioned swivel chairs, glossy white tables - and a sign on the outside that say, “Women aren’t complicated. It’s just that before no one understood us.”
Maybe this, at long last, is a bold step forward to address the Costa Rican corner of the worldwide gender gap in banking, where women appear to be significantly less likely to open bank accounts compared to men, and bear the brunt of well-documented inequalities in their ability to attract investment? And maybe all that could open a fruitful national dialogue about exactly why that is and what can be done about it?
“Banca Kristal offers its women customers special savings accounts for beauty supplies and fashion alongside the regular Banco de Costa Rica savings accounts for education and business…. For women who open accounts, different branches have offered everything from complimentary clutch bags to free manicures.”
But the main thing women want, the bank seems to have decided, is pink.
Lots and lots and lots of pink. Absolute bucketloads of the stuff - in the furniture, the graphic design of the marketing literature, the signs, the uniforms, everywhere.
In the words of a spokeswoman for Kristal speaking to the Tico Times: “Pink is a color that has always been associated with women. We just needed something to differentiate ourselves. Something that said you can manage finances without losing your femininity.”
The general response across the country? Less than impressed:
“It’s a bank for women that doesn’t incentivize women financially. Instead, it promotes the most traditional norms of society, those which the Banco de Costa Rica considers only belonging to women.”
- lawmaker Epsy Campbell Barr, writing in El País.
It’s quickly dubbed the “Barbie Bank” - and when it becomes evident that one of its flagship products, the new Kristal credit card, is burdened by an interest rate beyond even the most expensive credit card available through the entire BCR (36% APR vs. 29.5% on the “Pura Vida” card) - well, that’s about as welcome as a fart in a wetsuit. So much for financial empowerment?
(As a recurring worldwide trend, this is known as the Pink Tax.)
By January 2016, BCR is claiming the campaign a success, saying in the previous month alone it saw nearly 10,000 women opening new checking and savings accounts. And those decidedly unpreferential credit cards? According to the bank itself, it’s shifted over 6,000 of them.
Perhaps the bank really does know what its female customers want? Or perhaps it’s just trafficking on repressive gender stereotypes - aka. sexist nonsense? (I was living in Costa Rica in 2016 and learned about all this from my partner, who is Costa Rican. She described it as “awful and weird” - and from what I can tell, her reaction reflects the general mood.)
But one thing the bank is absolutely dead wrong about is that line about pink always being associated with women.
In one sense, it’s wrong because the human meanings of colours have been constantly in flux for thousands of years - like the way blue replaced as the colour of regal power in medieval Europe, as I wrote about previously.
But the other sense is it’s recently wrong. Pink isn’t “girly.” It’s MACHO. It’s the full-bearded, steel-bunned, bulging-biceped Manly Man of colours - at least until fairly recently, when advertising decided otherwise.
Fellow blokes, it’s time to reclaim your pink.
The first clue comes from popular literature:
“Toward the end of the 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, Jay shows up to lunch with his mistress and her husband in a pink suit. For modern readers, it's tempting to take his color selection as a sign of dandyism. Why would a man choose to wear the color of Mary Kay, breast-cancer research tie-ins and kitchen gadgets galore? When cuckolded husband Tom Buchanan criticizes Gatsby for wearing pink, he seemingly echoes the present-day assumption that pink is a feminine color.
But that would be imposing today's view of pink on the past. Buchanan uses the suit's hue not to discredit Gatsby's masculinity or virility, but his intellectual bona fides. He mentions it only when Gatsby's described as an Oxford man: "[Buchanan] was incredulous. 'Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.'"
- “Pink Wasn’t Always Girly,” Anna Broadway, The Atlantic.
(Full credit to Baz Luhrmann for included the scene in his 2013 film version of the story, pictured above.)
As an officially-named colour, pink was still pretty young in the 1920s. Before its first occurrence in the late 17th Century, “pink” (or pinke) meant a form of pigment made by binding an organic-derived colour to an inorganic base, and it came in a variety of shades: green pinks, rose pinks, brown pinks and - most commonly - yellow pinks (which were later renamed stil de grain yello, presumably to stop everyone yelling fruitlessly at each other).
But then sex and money got involved. Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), a mistress of France’s Louis XV, is widely credited for sending the popularity of pink through the roof. (One echo of this: the influential Sèvres porcelain company created and named a new shade of pink after her.)
At this time, pink didn’t mean “men” or “women” - it meant wealth, status, giddily high fashion and smouldering desirability. And not just in France, of course: across Europe, the influence of French fashion was impossible to ignore, leading to foppish copycats and nationalist backlashes galore - because, you know, people.
However, some time in the 19th Century, things started to shift. For some reason (perhaps the availability of cheap new dyes), men across Europe started going for darker shades.
Nevertheless, as Kassia St Clair notes in her endlessly fascinating essay collection The Secret Life Of Colours, an 1893 article in the New York Times on baby clothing recommends assigning “pink to a boy, and blue to a girl.” A trade publication published 25 years later helpfully elaborates that pink is “the more decided and strong colour,” while blue is “more delicate and dainty.”
So - why the huge shift in meaning, so huge that today it’s so baked into our heads as “common sense”?
You guessed it.
In the wake of the Second World War, women were enticed (or simply pushed) out of their wartime workplaces and back into more traditional Western roles at home - and while men largely retained their wartime neutral, uniform-like colour schemes, women were pointed towards warmer, brighter colours - aided by the ‘Mad Men’ of the 1950s advertising world.
At least, that’s the neatest explanation. Since advertising and consumer demand form one great big inextricable feedback loop at the best of times, it’s very hard to identify one cause - and, as historian Jo B. Paoletti (author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America) notes, this pattern was fragile: “it could have gone the other way” (say, by the influence of something like Elvis’s famous Pink Cadillac)…
“It’s really a story of what happened to neutral clothing…what was once a matter of practicality—you dress your baby in white dresses and diapers; white cotton can be bleached—became a matter of ‘Oh my God, if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they’ll grow up perverted.’ ”
- “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?”, Jenny Maglaty, Smithsonian Magazine.
As for “perversions,” pink has been at the heart of 20th Century efforts to move beyond restrictive definitions of male and female identities. The pink triangle of LGBT pride is maybe the most famous example - which is a piece of defiant reclamation work, as a pink triangle was how the Nazis labelled “sexual criminals” in concentrations camps during the Holocaust.
This fascinating tangle of meanings and associations (and prejudices) is where we are today - and perhaps today only. There’s nothing to say that pink won’t shift its meanings once again as some new cause or fad makes an appearance and pulls everyone’s tastes in a new direction. As with every other colour, it means whatever each specific modern society decides it means - and there’s nothing stopping some incredible pink-hued K-pop craze from utterly flooding the West, or from some new variety of pink grabbing the attention of influential designers and manufacturers, or some ludicrously pink condiment making a huge splash on TikTok…hey, wait, that one’s actually happening!
(Also, snow’s turning pink. Tell your friends.)
So, there you go. Immensely rich and complicated. Not bad work, for something that isn’t even a real colour!
Well, sort of. Take a look at this chart of the visible spectrum. Can you see pink on there?
No, that’s orange you’re looking at. Or reddy orange. Or orangey red. Can you see pink?
The formal name for pink is magenta (named in 1859 in honour of the Battle Of Magenta). And magenta is…a purplish-red. Or mauvish-crimson. However you define it, it’s obtained by mixing two colours that don’t sit next to each other on the visible spectrum.
It’s an example of an extra-spectral colour, part of a bizarre menagerie of tints that require a little more explanation than simple single-wavelength Newtonian optics.
(They also include a mindbending category called “impossible colours” which I’ll be returning to another time. Delightful, they are. Mad as a box of frogs.)
What we’re seeing when we see pink is our brain’s attempt to make sense of a confusing mixture of red and purple. To help illustrate, here is a map of how our minds derive all the colours we think exist in the real world:
This is what us standard trichromatic (3 primary colours being mixed together) human beings can see, giving us a range of up to a million colours. If people like artist Concetta Antico really are functioning tetrachromats and can see a hundred times more colour than the rest of us (as I wrote about previously) - well, who the hell knows how you map that?
Anyway, back to this chart. You can see where pink makes an appearance!
But remember, this isn’t a spectrum as such (ie. it’s not a chart of single wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, of the kind that a prism can illustrate using white light). It’s a perceptual map of colours. It’s what our eyes and our minds “fill in” when they encounter a mix of wavelengths of light…
So, in an odd but very real sense, we invent them.
Here’s a more detailed explanation of all this (hat-tip to Doug of the amazing Snack Stack for sending it my way).
The key take-away is this: what we think of as a “colour” is something created by our visual systems. It’s all happening behind our eyes and in our heads. Which leads inexorably to the question: if wavelengths of light don’t have our eyeballs in the way, are they actually colourful?
Well, no! And also yes! This is like that bloody tree falling in the woods, you know the one. All very headache-inducing, so let’s not.
So - there you have it. The colour pink (if it really exists at all) isn’t ‘naturally’ for girls, so please go cash that, BCR - and if you identify as a woman who hates pink (or as a man who loves it), you’re actually being even more of a traditionalist than those traditionalists.
Pink, you absolute rebel, you.
I'll note that pink occurs in nature pretty often, in iridescence! I see pink in clouds quite often in Colorado. :)
Fascinating! My husband is slightly colorblind, so we often have discussions about color perception. I’ve wondered for much of my life: How do I know that what I perceive as blue isn’t green for you--and we’re all calling it yellow?