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 senior video producer at The Atlantic. More

Wells was formerly a producer of WNYC's Freakonomics Radio and NPR's Science Friday.

Life as an Obama Impersonator

"When you think you're the president, you just act like you are above everybody else."

Join the Discussion

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

blog comments powered by Disqus

VIdeo

Life as an Obama Impersonator

"When you think you're the president, you just act like you are above everybody else."

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

More in Video

Just In