Light, Color, and Vision

First Term Seminar 100-292

Fall 2004

Class Meetings:

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday 11:30AM, Fine Arts- Music 120

Course Material and Class Participant Web Page

Fall 2004


Prof. Jonathan M. Smith

Nobel 106A


Office hours:

Monday, Tuesday: 10:30 – 11:30

Friday:  1:00 – 2:30 PM


The ubiquitous role of light, color and vision in our lives is investigated with a multidisciplinary approach.  The course addresses fundamental principles of light from the integrated perspectives of chemistry, biology and physics.  Areas of inquiry and discussion will include everything from the operation of laser-based scanners in the grocery store, to the underlying molecules that are responsible for the wide variety of color that our eyes perceive in art, to the vision process itself.  As well, this course will touch upon light, color and vision in philosophy, literature, and art. Questions will be addressed such as: With the new technologies that provide a more “colorful” world of information, advertising, etc. do they actually provide a better quality of life?  Laser technology provides everything from CD players to laser-guided weapons, is this all good?


Ball, Philip. Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.


Lightman, Alan. Einstein's Dreams; Warner Books, Inc.: New York, 1993.


Additional Readings:

Perkowitz, Sidney. Empire of Light: a History of Discovery in Science and Art; Joseph Henry Press: Washington, D.C., 1996.


Falk, David S.; Brill, Deiter R.; Stork, David G. Seeing the Light: Optics in Nature, Photography, Color Vision and Holography; John Wiley & Sons: New York, 1985.

Pigment Molecular Web Pages:





Course Web Page:

Molecular Models

Light Source Spectra and Pigment Reflectance

Colored Solution Spectra and Molecular Structure

Flame Emission

Tentative Schedule:

Helpful Links:

Library Course page: FTS: Light, Color, Vision


Molecular Modeling Investigation

Light Links:

General Light Links

This is Chromaticity Diagram Applet


Brain Visual Pathways - Introduction

Scientific American: Bug-Eyed

Bee Vision Exhibit at the N.Y. Botanical Gardens by Ed Tannenbaum

Myoglobin: the oxygen-binding site


The Primary Reaction Centre of Photosynthesis

Chlorophyll proteins

How We See: The First Steps of Human Vision

Causes of Colors - Why are things colored?

Ancient dyes, natural and synthetic

Autumn Leaf Color Page

Radiation Laws

Blackbody Radiation Observations

Pigment Links:

Chemistry of Dyes:

Molecular Models of Food Colors:

Color of Inorganic Compounds powerpoint: Color of Inorganic Compounds.html

Plant Pigments



Several components figure into the final grade including class participation and the writing of five short papers and a term paper as well as two presentations.  The term paper will be written on selected topics ranging from the molecular make up of pigments to laser eye surgery. Additional shorter writing exercises will focus on writing about specific topics including such as “Lux et Veritas”, light as a metaphor.



 Fall 2002 Class: