Saturday, 21 April 2012

Birds, bees and Claude Monet: How the famed artist could see in ultraviolet just like some animals

Most people would see water lilies as white.

But after he had the lens on his left eye removed at the age of 82, Claude Monet started painting the flowers with a blue tinge. The operation had enabled the artist to see - and subsequently to paint - in ultraviolet.

This insight and others are all explained in Color Uncovered, a sumptuous iPad app that takes the reader through a range of subjects on colour including: optical illusions, food dyes and why dogs shouldn't drive (they can't see stop signs).

Humans have three types of pigments tuned to blue, yellow, and green light. Each pigment responds to a certain colour.

But the same pigment can also react weakly to close colours on the spectrum. The pigment tuned to blue sometimes responds weakly to violet and weaker still to ultraviolet. Most people will never experience what Monet saw because their lenses filter out UV rays.

Monet's condition is known as 'aphakia' - the absence of the lens of the eye. It is rare for babies to be born without a lens, they are mostly removed for medical reasons later in life.

Monet had developed cataracts and as his lenses got worse he complained to friends that he saw everything in a fog. His painting suffered until he had the lens removed.

Light could now stream through uninterrupted, and without the lens acting as a filter, so too the UV light.

Birds, bees and other animals have pigments tuned to UV light. For example, most humans wouldn't be able to differentiate between the males and females of certain butterfly species. But to UV sensitive eyes like Monet's, they look completely different as the males have bright patterns to attract a mate.

Similarly many flowers contain ultraviolet patterns that cannot be detected by the human eye, to attract bees for pollination.

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