All posts by Krista

Krista's a freelance proofreader and writer who spends most days eyeballing medical texts, others crafting stories for teen games. Sometimes she even makes a few bucks with photography. One thing's always true--she's got a hot geek streak for historical and scientific discovery.

The Cool, Yet Creepy, Robots of Boston Dynamics

With the strides science has made in recent years, it’s no surprise that robots are one of the most interesting advances to observe. We’ve developed them to do tons of awesome things, such as genetic engineering and even herding sheep or cattle. In fact, it seems there’s always some type of robot in the news doing something neat. When you actually search these things out, the things scientists and engineers are doing blow your mind.

Of course, most people probably don’t so much think about these practical robots in a lab or those on the factory floor. More likely, their eye is caught by those that perform more interesting things, especially more human-like things, such as those hair-raising sorta-artificial-intelligence creepers with a human face (and sometimes body!). You know them. Those freaky, talking Japanese robots. The ones that look a little too much like the baddies you’ve seen in film or on television.

It’s okay to admit it; they’re a bit unnerving.  But are they the only creepy robots out there?

Not in my book.

When I want to get the heebie-jeebies from some human-created, intelligent hunk of wires and metal, I usually turn to Boston Dynamics, for the following five reasons:

1. The SpotMini makes me think of some kind of alien dog. Should I pet it? Is it spying on me? Is it luring me in to some trap because it knows I have a soft spot for dogs?

2. Atlas can jump. And do flips. What else is it learning to do so it can chase and kill me?

3. Please don’t give WildCat jaws; it could chase us down and eat us.

4. Petman is for ‘testing clothing for hazardous environments.’ M’kay. Sure, I believe you. You’ll never program it for anything else. *wink*

5. Could you image an army of artificially intelligent Handle robots roaming loose? Give it a weapon, and it’s terminator time.

Look, I’m not saying human use of artificial intelligence in robots is a precursor for their taking over the world. Not really. However, sometimes these things, although technologically cool, just give me the creeps, for a few reasons:

  • Robots such as Handle and Atlas can move just as good or better than humans. That’s just odd to watch, particularly with the ones that are fast.
  • Robots can also seem alien when you don’t see their likeness every day. The closest I’ve been to such a thing is my sister’s robot dog, and that was years ago, when it could barely shuffle across the carpet.
  • Then there’s the possibilities for their use. In the wrong hands, some of these guys might be a little scary or dangerous. I’m not implying that the creators have bad intentions, but we know humans will be humans. Not all of us are sugar and spice and everything nice.

Still, despite my imagination’s creative reservations, robots like those above are pretty neat. It’s probably just something odd in me that finds them bizarre.

I only wish I could say the same for androids like Erica.

Everything’s creepy about that.

NASA to announce Kepler discovery

It seems NASA’s Kepler spacecraft been busy out in space, and so have researchers here at home. Using Google’s machine-learning technology to examine data from the Kepler mission, scientists have made a discovery that will be revealed at a press conference on Thursday, December 14th.

Why is this exciting? Kepler is a spacecraft used to hunt planets. So far, the mission has identified 4,496 candidate planets and confirmed 2,341. Of those, 30 are confirmed to be located within the habitable zone around their stars. Although we don’t know what NASA will announce on Thursday, it’s possible that the Google technology has helped identify additional planet candidates, giving scientists even more places to look for planets that support life like Earth.

Watch the announcement on NASA Live at 1 p.m. CT/10 a.m. PT, then head over to Reddit to join the AMA and ask researchers any questions about the discovery!

Read the official press release below:

NASA will host a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EST Thursday, Dec. 14, to announce the latest discovery made by its planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. The discovery was made by researchers using machine learning from Google. Machine learning is an approach to artificial intelligence, and demonstrates new ways of analyzing Kepler data.

The briefing participants are:

  • Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington
  • Christopher Shallue, senior software engineer at Google AI in Mountain View, California
  • Andrew Vanderburg, astronomer and NASA Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow at The University of Texas, Austin
  • Jessie Dotson, Kepler project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley

For dial-in information, media must send their names, affiliations and phone numbers to Felicia Chou at felicia.chou@nasa.gov no later than noon Dec. 14. Questions can be submitted on Twitter during the teleconference using the hashtag #askNASA.

Teleconference audio and visuals will stream live at:

https://www.nasa.gov/live

When Kepler launched in March 2009, scientists didn’t know how common planets were beyond our solar system. Thanks to Kepler’s treasure trove of discoveries, astronomers now believe there may be at least one planet orbiting every star in the sky.

Kepler completed its prime mission in 2012 and went on to collect data for an additional year in an extended mission. In 2014, the spacecraft began a new extended mission called K2, which continues the search for planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets, while introducing new research opportunities to study young stars, supernovae and other cosmic phenomena.

For more information about NASA’s Kepler mission, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/kepler

 

 

 

Who the hell needs a $1000 phone? This Apple fan went Android…and loves it!

After owning multiple iPhones and bringing my well-loved, aging MacBook Pro back from the edge of death, there’s no doubt that I loved the Apple products I owned. It’s why I kept going back. The $1800 I spent on my laptop in 2011 has been more than worth it, and my battered iPhone 5 is still trucking it, cracked screen, broken speakers and all. Of course, just when I was finally breaking down, preparing to get a new phone, they had to do it.

Apple finally made me snort, shake my head and laugh, “oh, hell no.”

If there’s one sure way to turn a fan away from your brand, it’s letting your product drain their wallet a bit too much, and with the release of the iPhone X, Apple’s done just that. For this formerly loyal customer, $1000 is far too damn much for a phone. That’s over half of what I paid for my MacBook Pro!

Let’s be clear: Despite being an Apple fan, the main reason I got my previous iPhones was due to the discount deals from my cell phone contract. But that was back when I needed a good data contract because I didn’t work at home. Now that I’m a Project Fi subscriber? I’ve lived on T-Mobile instead of using their carrier switching, which allowed me to use my ragged, free iPhone…after my used Nexus 5x died the month I got it.  (BEWARE the dreaded bootloop!)

I mean, if I’m not going to spend $700 on a Pixel, I’m surely not going to splurge for an iPhone that costs even more. Hell, I bitch all day because Project Fi doesn’t have a $250-range phone!

I do admit, I was a bit disappointed that the new iPhone costs so much. I’ve owned iPhones so long that I was seriously considering biting the bullet. Familiarity, you know? Instead, I went on the hunt to see what I could get that was cheap. That’s where I found just the thing I needed: a low-cost Android that barely touches the money in my bank.

Yes, I bought a damn Amazon Prime Exclusive Alcatel A30 Plus. Go ahead, judge me.

alcatel a30 plus amazon prime exclusive

For $80, this is what I got:

  • 1.5 GHz quad-core processor
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 16 GB internal memory – option for 32 GB expandable memory via microSD
  • 5.5″ HD display
  • 13 megapixel rear-facing camera
  • 5 megapixel front-facing camera

Scoff all you want, phone snobs, but I use my phone maybe once a day. I mostly surf the web on it when laying in bed at night. I could honestly use a damn old-school flip phone and it wouldn’t matter as little as I use a phone, but you know what? It never hurts to splurge a little. I do love to play pool, SimCity and slots, after all.

All joking aside, I’m really surprised at how decent the phone is for so cheap. It won’t surprise me if it dies in a year or starts having issues in the near future. I know what I paid for, and it isn’t high quality. The one thing it is, however, is more flexible than my iPhone.

Nintendo emulator on my phone? Yes please!

Blue light filter? Holy hell, there’s one built in?

You mean I can restore my barely used Nexus 5x info from my Google backup? Niiiccceee.

Dude, my phone has facial recognition? WTF do I need a $1000 iPhone with Face ID then?

I didn’t have my Nexus long, but after using an iPhone again for months and coming back to an Android, I have to admit that I love it. That’s right. This former Apple fan girl has turned to the dark side.

I’m sure some of you will give me hell for taking so long.

Others will tell me that I’ll regret it.

The one thing I know is this: I just saved hundreds of dollars by switching to Android.

I know, I know, I know. They say the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. But right now? My wallet sure is!

Thanks, Android!

Inside a category 4 hurricane: video from Harvey’s eye

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been glued to the television and online videos since last weekend’s Harvey landfall. It started with those first wild live streams from storm chasers in Rockport, Texas, and quickly gave way to days of life-threatening floods. Local residents and news stations gave me, an American hundreds of miles away, an up-to-date glimpse into the disaster as flood waters rose. Those images will stick with me, but one thing shook me more: simply seeing the mother nature at its fiercest.

Beyond the flooding in New Orleans, the power of water from the storm surge in Biloxi, Mississippi, from Katrina is always fresh in my mind during these events. I remember pulling out photos I’d taken just months before and comparing them to video from the area after the storm, feeling the shock and horror. Every once in a while I watch video of the surge taken from a casino on the water. And the stories from the people who survived! They are simply unimaginable, as the true power of nature is hard to contemplate unless you’ve experienced it.

For these reasons, I am both horrified and in awe of those willing to risk their lives to tell the story from inside the storm. They perform a valuable service that I hope, as I’m sure they do, saves lives by bringing to view the reality of the danger.

One such person, award-winning storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski, became an internet sensation overnight as Harvey made landfall in Rockport, TX.

Yes, he’s the one responsible for the #blueshed memes you’ve probably seen.

As stupid and dangerous as it was, Jeff and some fellow chasers took shelter at a car wash as the hurricane roared ashore, and they captured every minute as the wind howled and structures broke apart around them.

Live coverage Hurricane Harvey Cat 4+ at Rockport TX. #txwx https://t.co/2pWf4z1wEO

And inside the eye, they captured this amazing photo:

The calm of the eye with a back-lit starry sky. Wow.

I watched every minute of their live stream, and afterward, there’s only one thing I could say: mother nature can be fucking terrifying.

Watch Jeff’s videos. Then, next time you are deciding whether to evacuate a storm, remember what the wall of wind and rain looked like as Harvey’s eye wall passed. Still not phased? Watch the video below of Katrina’s storm surge and remember how it wiped parts of the Mississippi coast clean.

If these don’t scare you into action, I don’t know what will.

Hurricane Irma has formed in the Atlantic and is a category 3 as of 1100 PM AST on August 31st. Whether it will hit the US is unknown, so keep track with the National Hurricane Center, and stay safe! 

Orphan Black’s technological prowess set the bar for future TV

The competition between television networks and online streaming services currently is flaming hot. Powerhouses like Game of Thrones are bringing movie-quality battles and storytelling to television, and Netflix and Hulu are developing excellent originals such as Stranger Things and Black Mirror. I’ve never found so much TV to love! This upgrade in show quality also comes with an upgrade in special effects, but there’s one problem: these aren’t the early days. The typical CGI dragons and imaginary future tech no longer impress me; they’re expected! There is, however, one thing that does: the use of technology in the sci-fi series Orphan Black.

Beware: Spoilers right ahead!

Welcome to the trip, man

The concept of the Orphan Black mandates an authentic feel, as the show follows a group of women who find out they are clones. We don’t know exactly how many there are in the world, but the show features over a dozen, each played by Emmy award-winner Tatiana Maslany. Although I’d love to go all fan-girl and glow about the amazing job Tatiana does on the show, I don’t want to provide too many spoilers. Besides, even with her talent, the show wouldn’t be what it is today without a key piece of tech: the technodolly.

Every rule needs to be broken

The trip down technology lane all started with the idea that the clone scenes should look natural. The creators did not want to rely on industry tricks that often looked too fake for comfort, especially if the clones were to interact. Luckily, they found their answer in Technocrane s.r.o.‘s telescoping camera cranes.

Using the company’s motion-control technodolly, the crew’s camera can be both manually controlled and automated. First, the director manually controls the camera to get a good shot. Then, they turn it over to the camera. With the push of a button, it retraces the previous movements exactly. This allows Tatiana to act out a scene as one clone, opposite either a tennis ball placeholder or her double Kathryn Alexandre, then act out the same scene as a different clone.

The results speak for themselves. (Note: I chose early scenes that are not spoiler-heavy. There are much better ones in later seasons!)

The whole process that creates these life-like scenes is pretty cool. For instance, when the creators put each of the takes together, sometimes they wind up with Tatiana’s face and torso but Kathryn’s arm. It takes careful alignment and planning to get the clones just right, but boy are they good at it! So good, in fact, that clone hugs and fights look flawless.

Would you believe we’re clones?

The quality of the clones scenes has spoiled me, really.

I remember watching the fight scene between Chip and Dale on Baskets, and the part where Dale chokes Chip looked horrible to me.

The Parent Trap uses backside shots in the twin scenes, except for in short scenes where a still, close-up frame has the characters together, but nicely spaced apart.

Resident Evil: Afterlife does a decent job. There’s a scene where two Alice clones are fighting together, and although it doesn’t look forced, you could draw a line between the two sides of the screen and neither clone would cross.

Orphan Black Sarah and Alison
Sarah pats Alison on the leg in season 1.

In other words, no one does clones and/or twins quite like Orphan Black. While characters face the viewer, the clones actually touch. Instead of relying on the typical still frame shots, the camera flows though the scenes. These two small changes actually make a huge difference in making you see the clones as individuals, and if you ask any Orphan Black fan, making you forget it’s the same actress playing them all!

I just want to make, like, crazy science with you

Since we also love science around here, I’d be a horrible fan if I didn’t take a moment to also geek out on the reality-based scientific aspects of the show. Yes, we aren’t at the point of seeing human clones walking around yet…that we know of…but that doesn’t mean Orphan Black relies on wild, unrealistic ideas.

Recently, news broke of the first human embryo editing experiment in the United States. Using CRISPR, scientists edited the germline of human embryos to remove a gene that causes a specific disease of the heart, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. In the Orphan Black universe, similar tactics are used, except that intent was, obviously, to  implant the embryo.

There are many other cases where the show is just a step or two off from reality, and there are others that turn out to be current reality, no matter how far-fetched they sound. One example that won’t spoil the plot includes stem cell cosmetic treatment causing bone to grow in a woman’s eyelid. I thought it was something made up for the show, but it wasn’t. Lesson learned: don’t dismiss the science if it sounds outlandish with this show because it just might be reality.

Being a show that “follows the science,” it’s not surprising that it covers themes relevant to current and future scientific research. While there’s the well-known nature versus nurture dilemma, Orphan Black also touches on ideas that are becoming ever-more important to tackle as the science of gene editing advances. For instance, the ethics of experimentation has a constant presence: Is it right to experiment on humans if the product is less suffering and illness across humanity? Then, that ties into eugenics, and even bodily autonomy. Should a scientist get to decide the ideal genetic make up of humanity? If anything, Orphan Black makes you think hard about the questions we will have to answer in coming decades as science breaks through more barriers.

Not everyone will find these topics appealing, but if you’re a bit of a science nerd like me? The science is one of the major things that keeps me coming back for more.

You can’t leave me! No!

Now that I’m done hyping you up, I must break the news: There are only two episodes left of Orphan Black. But even though final episode of the fifth season airs Saturday, August 12th, on BBC America, that doesn’t mean it’s too late to join those of us in Clone Club; it means it’s the perfect time to binge it! 

If you’re ready for the trip, stream or download the show from any of the providers below, including directly from BBC America’s website.

Watch the original trailer:

Now hiring: NASA seeks ‘Planetary Protection Officer’

Ready to save the earth? If you have a degree in engineering, mathematics or physical science, NASA is giving you the chance.

It may sound weird, but you could become NASA’s newest Planetary Protection Officer, keeping humans safe from dangerous space organisms. And no, this doesn’t mean aliens. It’s more like alien microbes.

As an employee of the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance for Planetary Protection, the PPO will serve to fulfill the office’s mission “to promote the responsible exploration of the solar system by implementing and developing efforts that protect the science, explored environments, and Earth.”

The starting salary is a nice $124,406, and there is no Independence Day or Mars Attacks! type danger involved. In fact, the position’s tasks include reasonable items such as “assistance in the construction of sterile (or low biological burden) spacecraft, the development of flight plans that protect planetary bodies of interest, the development of plans to protect the Earth from returned extraterrestrial samples, and the formulation and application of space policy as it applies to planetary protection.”

Interested? Check out more about the office, and then apply for the job at USAJOBS.gov.

How to replace the hard drive in a broke ass MacBook Pro

No matter how much you take care of your good buddy the MacBook, something is bound to break as the years go by. For me, it’s many things: a bad optical drive, dead USB ports, a loose screen and a malfunctioning trackpad. It may sound bad, but those were easy to work around. My failing hard drive, however, is not.

Thing is, I can’t blame the damned thing; it’d been through a lot even before I started my freelance career. At the same time, I can’t give my partner a pass this time. It’s impossible to ignore the screeching, clicking, anguished cries of a hard drive about to die.

Thankfully, the threat is no more.

Despite my inability to connect an external drive due to dead USB ports, and my inability to install OS X  via disk due to a bad optical drive, I found a simple way to at least fix the hard drive problem on my broke ass MacBook Pro. If you’re in the same boat, hopefully I can help you, too.

Hard Drive Replacement Shopping List
Step 1

Shut down your laptop and disconnect the power cord. Flip it over and unscrew the case. Be sure to place your screws somewhere safe.

unscrew bottom of macbook pro

Step 2

Disconnect the battery, using these instructions from iFixit.

Step 3

Remove your optical drive (directions can be found here). You’ll notice mine is already missing because, of course, it broke a couple of years ago.

inside of macbook promissing optical drive macbook pro

Step 4

Remove your old hard drive by unscrewing the four screws holding it in place. This also involves removing the black plastic bar on its left side.

remove hard drive macbook pro

Step 5

Disconnect your old hard drive.

disconnect hard drive macbook pro

Step 6

Remove the screws from the sides of your old hard drive and screw them into the sides of your new hard drive.

Step 7

Insert your old hard drive into the new second hard drive caddy, and screw in the side screws.

macbook pro hard drive caddy

macbook pro hard drive caddy

Step 8

The connections that run over and around your optical drive should still be loose from step 1. Carefully move them out of the way just enough to insert your hard drive caddy beneath them.

Step 9

Turn your hard drive caddy face down and connect it to the old optical drive’s connector. Then place it and secure the connections.

optical drive connector macbook pro

2nd hard drive macbook pro

Step 10

Connect your new hard drive and screw it in.

macbook pro with two hard drives

Step 11

Reattach the back cover.

bottom of macbook pro

Step 12

Boot up your laptop. It will boot to your old hard drive by default.

Step 13

Open up disk utility. Select your new hard drive, then click “Erase.” You will see the following pop-up:

disk utility

Pick a name for your new hard drive. There’s no need to change the format or scheme. Then, click “Erase.”

Step 14

Shut down your computer, then restart while holding Command + Option + R. This will start OS X recovery utilities, from which you’ll select “Reinstall OS X.”

Recovery Mode OS X

Step 15

Choose your new hard drive for as the destination disk and follow the on-screen instructions.

Step 16

On restart, set up your laptop as usual. (My computer restarted and booted to the new installation. If yours does not, on restart hold Option and select the new disk.)

Step 17

When everything is up and good to go, make sure your system is set to use the new hard drive as the startup disk.

Open the settings panel and click “Startup Disk.”

mac settings

Unlock to make changes, then select the new drive.

macbook utilities

Step 18

Transfer needed files. If you need to move files from your old hard drive, it will appear as a drive in the side bar of the Finder window. You can then explore the files on the drive and find what you need. It’s as easy as drag and drop!

From this point forward, you can choose what to do with your old drive. If you did this to install a second drive, then feel free to erase the old one and use it to store files or as a time machine backup. If your hard drive was failing like mine, you can always replace it with a new one or just leave it until you decide. I was lazy, so guess which I picked.

All in all, the process was not hard. Although I thought it would be a pain, especially since I have so many problems with my laptop, it wasn’t even time-consuming. Hell, I didn’t even have a Torx screwdriver, and improvising with pliers was only slightly more difficult. There was no frustrated hair pulling, no throwing things, and I did not break anything on my laptop during the process. It was actually–dare I say it–kind of fun!

So here’s a lesson for the day: Even when everything seems stacked against you, use your thinker, consider a new idea and dive right in! You’ll be amazed at what you can do when you finally try.

There’s smartphones, then there’s…KFC smartphones?

Just how lit is the smartphone market right now? So much so that KFC won’t let Pepsi have all the fun. That’s right: KFC’s giving fans a chance to commemorate their favorite fast food chicken with a company-branded cell phone.

KFC has partnered with Huawei to celebrate 30 years of operation in China by releasing the KFC Huawei 7 Plus. The limited edition red phone features an engraved KFC logo on the back, along with KFC China’s inaugural year, 1987.

Phone specs
  • 5.5-inch screen
  • Snapdragon 425 processor
  • 3GB RAM
  • 32GB storage
  • MicroSD storage expansion
  • 3,020mAh battery
  • Fingerprint scanner

To top it off, it even comes with 100,000 K-dollars to spend at the restaurant and a KFC K-music app that allows customers to choose music to play when visiting a KFC. I’m serious. Check out the promo video:

The device went on sale July 13th in China, but luckily enough for fans, the limited 5,000-phone release didn’t sell like hot cakes, so there’s still a chance to get one. And with the cost is only 1,099 yuan ($162 USD), what’s not to like? You could always hide your deep, dark, finger lickin’ secret with a case or cover.

Check out KFC’s other weird promos

 

Why do colors fade in the sun?

Unless you’re a hermit, you’ve experienced the strength of the sun many times in life. It doesn’t even require long days at the beach or afternoons spent at outdoor events. Just standing outside on a bright, sunny day provides a glimpse of its power. The evidence is in the sweat that trickles and the red tone that rises on your bare arms, legs or face. In fact, our bodies are the sun’s best way to boast.

Whenever you spend a little too much time outside with exposed skin, you can count on some amount of sunburn. Sunburn is the result of overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. It causes chemical changes in the skin, leading to alterations in color, among other physical changes.

For many, the reward of sun exposure is a nice tan. However, due to the chemical changes taking place, this can come at a price: overexposure damages the DNA, sometimes even causing skin cancer. In other words, there are risks and rewards when we spend time in the sun.

But what about for nonliving things?

Humans aren’t unique in their susceptibility to sun damage. Along with living creatures, inanimate objects undergo changes after sun exposure. And such changes include alterations in color.

One key ingredient: ultraviolet radiation

The sun is the primary source of ultraviolet radiation, a type of electromagnetic radiation that is present in sunlight. It is named as such because UV light is beyond the visible spectrum of light, which ends with violet, the highest frequency of visible light. Thus, “ultra”-violet.

There are three main types of ultraviolet light: UVA, UVB and UVC.

Name Wavelength (nm) Absorbed by Ozone?
UVA 315-400 Little effect
UVB 280-315 Most absorbed
UVC 100-280 All absorbed

At the top of Earth’s atmosphere, right on the edge of space, 10% of sunlight is made up of these types of UV light. By the time sunlight hits the ground, it is only 3% UV light, and of this light, over 95% is UVA, the rest UVB. This small amount of UV light is strong enough to cause cancer with overexposure; however, the intensity is not uniform.

According to the American Cancer Society, several factors impact the strength of rays when they hit the earth:

  • Time of day: UV rays are strongest between 10 am and 4 pm.

  • Season of the year: UV rays are stronger during spring and summer months. This is less of a factor near the equator.

  • Distance from the equator (latitude): UV exposure goes down as you get further from the equator.

  • Altitude: More UV rays reach the ground at higher elevations.

  • Cloud cover: The effect of clouds can vary. Sometimes cloud cover blocks some UV from the sun and lowers UV exposure, while some types of clouds can reflect UV and can increase UV exposure. What is important to know is that UV rays can get through, even on a cloudy day.

  • Reflection off surfaces: UV rays can bounce off surfaces like water, sand, snow, pavement, or grass, leading to an increase in UV exposure.

There are also factors that influence the amount of UV exposure a person receives, such as length of time exposed and type of protection (clothing, sunscreen).

When each of the above are combined, they affect how the sun changes the color of inanimate objects we see.

So how do we see color?

 

How the eye works

The human eye uses three cell types in the retina to distinguish color. Called cones, each cell type is most sensitive to a different wavelength of light: short wavelength, medium wavelength and long wavelength. Short cones can detect light wavelengths in the range of 400 to 500 nm, medium cones 450 to 630 nm and large cones 500 to 700 nm. These each cover a different, often overlapping segment of the range of visible light, and when stimulated, the cones send signals to your brain to process color.

Single or multiple cones may show high stimulation when exposed to visible light, but it all depends on the particular wavelength. For instance, a short cone may react sharply to 450 nm wavelengths while the same light barely registers with medium cones. At the same time, each cone type has individual peak sensitivity (i.e., a strongest reaction) to specific wavelengths, and the overlap in detectible ranges allows two cones to react with the same strength to the same wavelength. For example, both the medium and long cones may respond equally as strong to wavelengths of 575 nm, even though they each react most strongly to other wavelengths. Combined with current knowledge, these facts help complicate what we thought we knew about sight.

light spectrum - cone fundamentals
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

If you’re like me, you’re probably most familiar with previous thoughts on sight, where scientists believed that short, medium, and long cones corresponded to the colors blue, green, and red, respectively. However, we now know that cones do not correspond to specific color detection, and that they each detect other colors as well. Interestingly, peak sensitivity in each cone can differ from person to person, even among those with normal color vision. In other words, your short cones may react most strongly to a 425 nm wavelength, whereas mine react most strongly to 440nm, both of which are different hues!

How objects show their color

Despite changes in our thinking about vision, one thing is still certain: while each person’s cones may react differently to the same wavelength, all of our cones need to detect reflected light for us to distinguish color. For example, imagine you an apple. The red color you see is based on the wavelengths that are bouncing off, rather than being absorbed, by the fruit. In other words, the apple skin doesn’t have red in it; it is reflecting the color red as light bounces off of it, due to chemicals in the peal.

I know what you’re thinking. Black and white seem different, but the same principle applies.

black and whiteWe see white when all of the colors are reflected. This is why the sun at noon looks white: all of the colors are reaching the eye. But why does it look yellow, orange or red at other times of the day? As the sun’s position changes in the sky, shorter wavelengths, such as blues and greens, get scattered in the atmosphere, leaving longer wavelengths, the reds and oranges, to reach your eye.

Black, on the other hand, is the lack of color. When you look at a black object, like a shiny new tire or the outer frame of your TV, there is no light reflected out because it is all absorbed by the object. And when there are no reflected wavelengths, there is no color.

Putting it all together: it’s in the chemistry

Although not the only possible culprit, UV radiation plays a significant part in the breakdown of the colors we see in outdoor objects. Unlike skin, an inanimate object doesn’t have DNA to destroy, but it is made of chemicals that can degrade. These chemicals, such as dyes, are subject to the same factors that cause sunburn, and thus the strength of UV light and the amount of exposure objects receive cause chemical changes that alter, among other things, color.

Remember the apple skin mentioned before? The chemicals in its skin do not allow the absorption of certain wavelengths, instead reflecting them.  When it comes to objects such as an outdoor table umbrella, the same idea applies.

blue and white umbrellaIf you consistently leave a blue umbrella outdoors, the compounds and molecules that reflect blue wavelengths will be exposed to varying strengths of UV light, depending on the weather, location, proximity to reflective surfaces, etc. Over time, the energy from the constant battering of UV light wears down the chemical bonds between the molecules, eventually breaking them and leading to gradual fading. This is called photodegradation.

In other words, the color fades because the molecular bonds changed and the object can no longer absorb and/or reflect certain wavelengths on the visible spectrum.  Objects may even eventually turn completely white because the wavelengths reflected have changed to that beyond our visible spectrum.

So then why do we get darker in the sun?

One thing we have that objects don’t is melanocytes. These cells exist in the lower layer of the epidermis, and when UVA rays are absorbed into the skin, they activate the melanocytes, which then produce melanin, the skin’s natural protector.

Melanin is a pigment that darkens the skin beyond your natural skin tone to protect from the harmful effects of sunlight. It absorbs light and disperses UV radiation, but as anyone whose tan has faded knows, the effect is only temporary. Every 28-30 days, the newly darkened cells make their way up to the surface and are shed, just like all skin cells.

Is there any way to protect the color of outdoor objects?

It’s not likely that you can completely prevent color fading from sunlight exposure, but you may be able to slow it by making careful choices. For instance, some dyes and other chemicals are stronger against UV; since red dyes appear to fade most quickly, it may be best to avoid the color. There are also spray-on chemicals available that claim to block UV and prevent fading.