Lab Notes

Short stories and links shared by the scientists in our community

The science of colors and the colors of science

Shared by

Allan Lasser

Co-founder and CTO, Massive Science

I was delighted to learn about Werner's Nomenclature of Colours, a fascinating intersection of art and science. It's a book, first published in 1814, that orders, classifies, and names 110 colors and provides examples of where they can be found in the natural world.

The Public Domain Review shares a short history of origins of the book:

The book is based on the work of the German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner who, in his 1774 book Treatise on the External Characters of Fossils (translated into English in 1805), developed a nomenclature of colors so as to offer a standard with which to describe the visual characteristics of minerals. Clearly taken by the idea, some three decades later the Scottish painter of flowers Patrick Syme amended and extended Werner’s system. In addition to the mineral referent, for each of Werner’s colors Syme added an example from the animal and vegetable kingdom, as well as providing an actual patch of color on the page to accompany the words. While Werner found a suite of 79 tints enough for his geological purpose, now opened up to other realms of nature, Syme added 31 extra colors to bring the total to 110.

I love how this book dances back and forth between science and art. At the same time that it's trying to order and classify colors in a rigorous way, it's also making subjective associations between those colors and the natural world. I think it also tells a larger story about the close relationship between science and art, and how our ordered scientific knowledge emerges out of our subjective observations.

You can see the entire original book on the Internet Archive, or purchase a copy of the book for yourself from the Smithsonian.