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GEK1532 Physical Causes of Color

Thorsten Wohland Dep. Of Chemistry S8-03-06 Tel.: 6516 1248 E-mail:

Interaction of Light with matter: Absorption

A note on absorption: concentration dependence Intensity


White Light

Absorption of blue is larger than absorption of green

No absorption of red



Concentration dependence of color: dichroic color

L.C. Thomas, Fig 1.4

Specular reflection
(mirror like) Incidence angle is equal to angle of reflection: =

Diffuse reflection

Does carry not much color information

More color information

Why is the sky blue?

from HyperPhysics by Rod Nave

Where does the rainbow come from?

from HyperPhysics by Rod Nave

Primary rainbow
This drop reflects red light to your eye
from HyperPhysics by Rod Nave


This lower drop reflects blue light to your eye Observer

from HyperPhysics by Rod Nave

The color of water

The color of water is due to some absorption in the red part of the spectrum. This absorption is due to some vibrational transitions of the molecule. This is probably the only case of color by vibrations one will usually encounter in nature.

Examples of blue water color

Particles in the water can give rise to different colors. E.g. sediments in rivers, cyanobacetria and algae in the sea.

Reflected color from the sky

Water is slightly blue. On many beaches with white sand the blue color of the water can be seen.

Color of the bottom (e.g. sea floor): If the water body is shallow and the sea floor can be seen, its absorption and reflection of light will contribute to the color seen.

Interactions of light with matter

Total internal reflection: Remember refraction

n1 < n2
n1 n2 n1

n1 > n2

Snells law: The difference between and is the bigger, the bigger the difference is between n1 and n2. (n1sin = n2sin )

Total internal reflection

n1 < n2
n1 n2 n1

n1 > n2

Total internal reflection (TIR) can happen only when light propagates in a denseer medium and comes to a interface with a less dense medium: Example: TIR happens from glass to air or water to air, but not from air to water or air to glass.

Interactions of light with matter

Interference describes the superposition of two or more em waves resulting in an amplification (constructive interference) or an attenuation (destructive interference) of the amplitudes of the em field and thus in intensities.


Example: Interference of water waves

If light impinges on a thin film or glass slide, some of the light is reflected from the surface, some of the light is transmitted into the film and then reflected from the back surface. Since the light in both cases has traveled different distances (see the pieces labeled a and b), the light can interfere.

b a a

Imagine now a film on which white light falls onto at different angles. The light will take a different path and the difference between the light rays is as well different. b a a

b a a

b a a


b a a


Example: Soap Film
Since we see the soap film under different angles, at different positions different parts of the light will be absorbed or reinforced and we see colored stripes.

light Interference of water waves
Interference pattern

Single Slit

Physical causes of color: scattering, refraction Dichroic color (due to absorption) Total Internal Reflection Interference Diffraction

Colors in Biology

Colors in Biology
Colors in nature can come from three different sources: Structural colors: scattering, interference, refraction, diffraction, reflections Pigmentary colors: Chemical molecules absorb some light. The reflected light exhibits then the complementary color. Colors from luminescence

Sometimes several of these mechanisms can work together to yield color.

Vegetable colors
Most plant colors come from colored substances, i.e. the colors are produced by absorption. Structural colors are rare in plants.




Flavonoids contain 15 carbon atoms and have two phenol rings

Examples: Flavonol


Autumn color changes

Pigment Class Compound Type Porphyrin Carotenoid chlorophyll Colors green carotene and yellow, lycopene orange, xanthophyll red yellow flavone flavonol anthocyanin yellow yellow red, blue, purple, magenta Decreasing light levels in autumn cause a slow down in chlorophyll production. The green color fades and depending of how much carotenoids or flavonoids the leave contains it can look yellow, orange or red.


Pigmentary colors in humans and animals

Skin color: Melanin: phaeomelanin (red to yellow) and eumelanin (dark brown to black)

Changing color
Lizzard: Expansion of cells that contain melanin can change the color of a lizzard.

Squid: Cells concentrating melanin in small centers can expand and distribute melanin thus changing the color of the squid

Changing color
Grasshopper: Changes of the location of colorants in the skin can change color of the grasshopper

Hercules Beetle: It changes depending on humidity. dry: yellow; humid: dark

Scattering and Pigmentation


Rayleigh scattering, stronger for blue light


Absorption of red and green light

(note: sometimes Rayleigh scattering is refered to as Tyndall scattering)

Scattering and Pigmentation

Yellow pigment (blue is absorbed)

Pictures from Andrew Parkers Seven Deadly Colors (Free Press)

Scattering Layer (RayleighScattering)

Whiteness or Silveriness
Snow, foam, chalk, paper all are examples of materials that scatter and reflect light in some way at many surfaces. The resulting color in all cases is white.

This white though can vanish when the air spaces are filled with some liquid (see oily paper, or wet chalk).

random structures -> matt appearance Regular structures -> shiny appearance (sometimes silverish)

Interference colors
As in bubbles interference can as well work in feathers and wings. Insect wings shimmer in many colors due to interference. A special example here is the peacock:

One can see very fine branches on the feathers. These are responsible for the multiple reflections and the interference effects of the peacocks feathers.

Is it really interference?

Seen under different angles the color of the peacock feather changes: a characteristic of interference colors

Albino peacocks do not possess any melanin thus most white light is reflected instead of absorbed. The white light is much stronger than the interference color and the peacock seems to be white.

Violet as an interference color

Structure in the wings responsible for the color

Ridges are 100 nm in size

Pictures from Andrew Parkers Seven Deadly Colors (Free Press)

White bar is 1/10 of a millimeter

Examples of bioluminescence

UV light can be absorbed will then be given off at a longer wavelength.

Snake, Benhams disk

Picture from Andrew Parkers Seven Deadly Colors (Free Press)

Colors in Biology structural colors: interference, diffraction, and scattering pigmentary colors: absoprtion Many biological are a combination of both Interference and diffraction based colors can be distinguished since they will change their appearance depending on the angle of viewing