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Book Review The omnipresent blue

ROX MIDDLETON recommends a popular-science book about the world’s favourite colour that has even lent its name to our planet: blue

Blue: In Search of Nature’s Rarest Colour
by Kai Kupferschmidt
The Experiment (£18.99)

CHEMISTS remain the mysterious wizards of modernity. Their ancestors were the alchemists motivated by the transmogrification of metal into gold.

The chemists’ science is still responsible for the magic of drugs, industrial production, pigments.

Understanding chemistry to the uninitiated is very difficult. Without familiarity, the different arrangements of atoms are hard to get your head around.

Kai Kupferschmidt’s book Blue does the impossible and creates a narrative drama around a single wordless concept, blue, and carries it on the back of hardcore technical chemistry. The result is profoundly beautiful.

Kupferschmidt’s scope is all of blue from scientific perspectives.

We pass through encounters with chemists making artificial pigments, understanding and engineering the colour of flowers, the blue of rock inside the Earth, of birds and beetles, and the ways we see blue, through the colour of light, through visual perception, linguistics and colour words.

The book starts with the sort of journalistic story of the ubiquitous kind in contemporary science writing.

We are meeting a world-famous chemist who invented a new kind of blue and became famous for it. We start in the carpark outside his lab, later we meet him and go for a walk with him and his wife.

Another striking vignette is the description of how scientists have worked to produce a true blue rose.

Kupfershmidt records interviews with Japanese scientists at the heart of this project, as well as the history of their trials over several decades, and a picture of their latest creation, an obsession that is far from being fulfilled.

Although Kupferschmidt’s journalistic approach leads with the personalities of the scientists, it isn’t the human story that most captivates, but rather the way in which Kupferschmidt does not skimp on the chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, psychology and physics.

His subject gives him permission to range freely and widely, and he does not miss the opportunity.  

The colour blue has inspired much art and literature, produced by devotees of the colour who feel themselves to be intoxicated by it. Kupferschmidt’s book is one of these devotional projects.

Although the book is not focused on the author, his love of the subject shines through it.

However, although it is printed in absurdly decadent full colour gloss pages, the book is certainly a science book.

The translation of this personal pleasure in the colour blue directly through to the cutting edge in science across a host of disciplines well executed and exciting. This is science as it should be understood, as an indulgent enrichment of the experience of living.

Rox Middleton is a postdoctoral researcher on the production of colour (especially blue) in nature.

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