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What gives color to objects?

How do light waves interact with materials to produce red and green or white
and black? In this lesson, learn how white light is composed of all colors and how absorption and
reflection influence our color perception.

Introduction To Color
What makes a plant green? What gives a male cardinal his bright red feathers? Why is an orange, well,
orange? All of the colors in the visible light spectrum are characterized by different frequencies. Greencolored light lives between 540 and 610 Terahertz. For red, the frequencies are a bit lower. For violet,
they are higher. But what determines the color of an object? How do the frequencies get divided out
between red, green, and violet objects? To answer these questions, we first need to look into the
mysteries of white light.

White Light And The Color Spectrum

If you pass a beam of white light through a prism, you will see the light split into the colors of the
rainbow. There's red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet all spread out. You can also see a rainbow
when sunlight passes through a crystal decoration or even the peephole in your front door. Sunlight and
other white lights are actually made of many different frequencies. The sun emits infrared and ultraviolet
waves in addition to the full spectrum of visible light. We don't see the infrared and UV waves. But we
do see the full range of visible color, all bundled together in the form of white light. White light is the
combination of many different frequencies of visible light from all parts of the visible spectrum. The only
way we can see these frequencies as separate colors is to separate them into a rainbow.

So if sunlight is white light, and

sunlight reflects off of objects
like plants and birds and
oranges, then why don't we see
those objects as white? It turns
out that the different color
frequencies are absorbed and
reflected differently in every
Sunlight emits the full spectrum of visible light in the form of white light.

different object. Let's learn more

about selective absorption and

how it relates to color.

Selective Absorption And Reflection

Let's say you've got a nice ripe orange in your hand. You walk outside, and the sunlight beams down on
the orange from above. The sunlight is white light, so it contains all the different frequencies in the
visible light spectrum. Many different waves of light beam down on the orange, each wave a different
frequency. When a light wave strikes any object, it can do one of three things: it can be transmitted, it
can be absorbed, or it can be reflected. We know that none of the light waves are transmitted through
the orange. If they were, then the orange would appear transparent. Since we can't see through
oranges, that means they are opaque, and that means all the light must be reflected or absorbed.

Absorption of a light wave occurs through resonance. When the frequency of a light wave matches the
resonant frequency of an object, then the object vibrates at that frequency. The energy of the light wave
stays in that object as thermal or vibrational energy. In other words, you never see that light wave again!
Let's take this one little light wave here, which happens to be the frequency of the color violet. When this
violet light wave strikes the orange, there are some molecules in the orange that resonate at that
frequency. The violet light wave is absorbed by those molecules, so we never see the violet reflecting
off the orange's surface. What about green? When a green light wave strikes the orange, it also
resonates with some of the molecules in the skin. It gets absorbed, and so we don't see green, either. In
fact, most of the frequencies inside the white sunbeam are absorbed by the orange. The only frequency
that ISN'T absorbed is that of the color orange!

So what is different about the orange

light? Instead of being absorbed into the
orange like the other colors, orange light
is reflected by the skin of the fruit. In
reality there are a range of frequencies for
the color orange. Some waves are more
reddish-orange and some are more
yellowish. But all those frequencies are
reflected together, giving the orange the
appearance of being orange. The

Colored light waves are either reflected or absorbed by an object.

appearance of color is due to the

selective absorption of light waves. Orange wasn't the only color to be beamed down on the fruit. But it
WAS the only color to be reflected. Selective absorption describes the tendency of an object to absorb
some frequencies of light more than others. An object that appears a certain color reflects the light
frequency that corresponds to that color, and it absorbs all the other frequencies in the visible light
spectrum. An orange absorbs all of the frequencies but orange. A banana absorbs all of the frequencies
except for yellow.

Pigments In Living Things

Selective absorption occurs in just about everything that has color. It happens because of the specific
properties of the molecules that make up objects. The molecules in red paint are slightly different from
the molecules in blue paint. The molecules in red feathers are different from the molecules in blue
feathers. In fact, most living things use special chemicals called pigments to make their bodies appear
a certain color. A pigment is a chemical that alters the color of a light wave by selectively absorbing one
or more light frequencies. The feathers of a male cardinal are made red by special organic pigments
called carotenoids. Birds get carotenoids from the plant materials they eat. They can make red, yellow,
or orange colors in their feathers this way. Another pigment they use is melanin, the same pigment that
colors human skin. Melanin is used to make the blacks, browns, and tans in the feathers of birds and
the hair of mammals. Structures that are totally black absorb all of the frequencies of light. In the case of
white structures, there ARE no pigments. So white feathers and white hair appear that way because
ALL frequencies of white light are reflected from their surfaces.

One very important biological pigment is the plant pigment chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is what gives plants
their green color. More importantly, it's what allows them to absorb the sun's energy and make food
through the process of photosynthesis. Chlorophyll is found mostly in the leaves and stems of plants. It
absorbs a huge amount of energy from white sunlight. It absorbs the waves in the red frequencies, and
the blue, and the violet, orange, and yellow frequencies. But it doesn't do a great job of absorbing light
in the green frequencies. So the green frequencies are reflected instead! And that's why plants look

The common theme

here is that color is
not something that
exists in objects. We
perceive things to be
a certain color
because of the way
our eyes sense the
Chlorophyll is one type of pigment that can determine what color waves are absorbed.

various frequencies
of light reflected off of

them. Objects that appear red do not contain the color red. They only contain the molecules that affect
the visible light waves so that only red is reflected. Therefore, color is the perception of a visible light
wave's frequency.

Lesson Summary
White light is a combination of all the frequencies of visible light. When white light strikes an object,
each individual frequency of light is transmitted, reflected, or absorbed, depending on the properties of
the surface molecules. If all frequencies are absorbed by the object, then it appears black. If all
frequencies are reflected, then it appears white. Selective absorption describes how some frequencies
of light are absorbed while others are reflected. This results in the appearance of color. Pigments are
natural or man-made chemicals that give color to objects through selective absorption. While we often
describe objects as 'being' a certain color, the truth is that color is only our perception of the light
frequencies reflected off of objects.