Is January a bleak, colorless time of the year where you live? To brighten your gray winter days, we’ve asked Jeopardy! phenom Ken Jennings to poke holes in four of your most embarrassing misconceptions about color. After all, there are plenty of colorful anniversaries to observe this month. The first color TV broadcast was the Rose Bowl of January 1953, and in January 1993, Crayola added sixteen new colors to its crayon boxes, including “Tickle Me Pink” and “Macaroni and Cheese.” The political novel Primary Colors was a January release; so was Radiohead’s album In Rainbows. Could there be a better time of year for a kaleidoscope of facts that—however colorful—are completely wrong?
Color Myth #1: Bulls See Red When They See Red.
For over three hundred years, Spanish matadors have used a red cape called the muleta in the final match of a bullfight, beckoning the angry bull onward with deft motions of the cape. The color red does in fact have a strong physiological effect on humans, elevating blood pressure, respiration, and brain activity, so it’s not much of a stretch to believe the old myth that the color red gets bulls riled up as well.
The only problem with this is that bulls are colorblind. Some animals have excellent color vision—monkeys, squirrels, and many fish can see color almost as well as humans. Insects like butterflies and bees can even see colors we can’t, with vision well into the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. But cattle are about as colorblind as you can get: they see all colors as varying shades of gray. That red cape could be blue or green or puce, and they’d charge anyway.
Why do they charge? As a wise woman once said, it’s not the color of the dye; it’s the motion of the fabric. The flapping of the cape is what gets the bull’s attention. It’s only red to help the audience in the cheap seats see the action, and to hide all the blood. Not to go all PETA here or anything, but I used to live in Spain and bullfights are pretty brutal. By the time the matador emerges with his red cape, the bull has already been mauled by two mounted riders with lances and three sidekicks armed with barbed sticks. Under those unhappy circumstances, you’d charge at the skinny Latin guy in the sparkly suit too, no matter what color his little flag was.
Quick Quiz: What American author wrote the 1932 bullfighting classic Death in the Afternoon?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead, out now. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.
Photo by Flickr user stevendepolo. Used under a Creative Commons License.