The Flame Challenge: What is Color?

Watch The Flame Challenge Award Ceremony

Recorded on June 1, 2014 at the World Science Festival, New York, NY, USA.

Winning Video Entry

Diana Cowern
Outreach Coordinator, UCSC Physics Department
California, USA

About Diana

Dianna Cowern received her BS in physics from MIT. While there, she worked on a dark matter detection experiment and on the electric vehicle team. She received a fellowship to study low-metallicity stars–the oldest stars in the universe–at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. During that time, she started her own educational channel on YouTube called Physics Girl. Her passion for outreach came from growing up on the small island of Kauai where there were limited opportunities to explore science beyond the classroom. She now works in the UCSD physics department as an outreach coordinator where she aims to reach today’s youth and spark curiosity through online science media!

Watch the Winning Video

Winning Written Entry

Melanie Golob
​Biochemist
Washington, USA

About Melanie

Melanie Golob first started to like science in high school; She had a few great science teachers who were passionate about the subject. She had a hard time picking a major in college because she didn’t want to focus on just one area of science. She chose biochemistry, because it combined multiple fields of science into one. After graduating, She worked with an organization called Mad Science, traveling to classrooms and fairs to show young kids that laboratory science can be fun. She started teaching while doing research in graduate school at UCLA, and fell in love with the idea of helping communicate science and research. After grad school, she taught summer school chemistry to a group of students who had previously failed. The most interesting thing she learned from that class was that many of the students just needed the concepts explained in a different way in order to understand them. Her current work is with a company called Doctor Evidence, encouraging clinical-practice guideline developers to use the most current medical evidence in writing guidelines. She also communicates science every day to her almost-4 year old, who asks questions such as “Why does the sun go down?” and “Why do plants need light to grow?”

Read the Winning Answer

Did you know that dogs don't see all the colors we do? Dogs only see yellow, blue and gray. Humans see quite a few more: red, yellow, green and blue are just a few of the colors that we see.

Color itself isn't a thing we can touch like a pencil or a book; color is how our eyes interpret reflection of light off of certain objects. That's why we don't see colors in the dark; there's no light to reflect.

The key is in the light itself. It helps to think of light like waves in the ocean. Sometimes waves are shorter and more frequent, and sometimes they're taller and more spread out. Just like different lengths of waves make different patterns in the sand, different wavelengths of light make different patterns (colors) in our eyes. The different colors we see are actually just different wavelengths of light. For example, blue is a shorter wavelength than red, so our eyes see it differently. But, unlike waves in the ocean, wavelengths of light are incredibly small.

So why can human see more colors than dogs? It's because of cones in our eyes. Humans have three "cones" at the backs of our eyes that are color-specific. No, they don't actually look like ice cream cones, but we can think of them like that. By color-specific, I mean "wavelength"-specific. There is a cone for shorter waves of light (blues), a cone for long waves of light (reds), and a cone for in-between lengths (green). All the other colors, such as orange and yellow, are seen with our cones working together. Dogs only have two cones in their eyes instead of three, so they see fewer colors.

Now you know why people look at you funny when your dog picks out your clothes!