Why ROYGBIV Is Arbitrary

Our division of the rainbow comes from Newton—but it's more subjective than scientific.

Isaac Newton was the first to demonstrate through his famous prism experiments that color is intrinsic to light. As part of those experiments, he also divvied up the spectrum in his own idiosyncratic way, giving us ROYGBIV. But why indigo? Why violet? We don’t really know why Newton decided there were two distinct types of purple, but we do know he thought there should be seven fundamental colors. There wasn’t any particular scientific reason he chose the number seven; he just thought it made more sense that way.

In the video above, science writer Philip Ball (author of Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color) tells the story of the creation of ROYGBIV. Special thanks to Jackie Lay, who created the animations for the video.

Katherine Wells is a video and radio producer based in New York, and a former senior video producer at The Atlantic.

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her middle school. Then Humans of New York told her story to the Internet—and everything changed.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.

Video

'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.

Video

What Fifty Shades Left Out

A straightforward guide to BDSM

More in Video

Just In