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Alexandra Breines
Alexandra Breines

What It's Like to See Pink for the First Time

Alexandra Breines
Alexandra Breines

Being colorblind comes with its fair share of headaches: We can’t become pilots, often need help matching articles of clothing, and struggle to perceive traffic lights from afar. Still, the biggest hurdle might be fielding questions like: “How is what you see different from what I see?”

That's one I've heard all my life; it's usually followed by ad hoc tests of my ability (or inability) to perceive the hues of nearby objects. While I’ve begrudgingly entertained the latter, I’ve never been able to adequately answer the question about how exactly my sight differs from the average person’s. Until now.

This epiphany, to put it romantically—and hey, I just saw pink for the first time, so I’m allowed to get a little rhapsodic here—came about via the good graces of colorblindness-correcting glasses from En Chroma.

Michael Arbeiter (left) and a friend. Photo by Alexandra Breines.


WHAT IS COLORBLINDNESS, EXACTLY?

A common misconception is that colorblindness has to do with an insufficient supply of rod and cone cells in the eye. It’s actually only the cones that play a part in colorblindness, and the issue isn’t with quantity—even severe sufferers boast the standard 6 or 7 million—but of these cells’ behavior.

All cone cells are armed with molecules called photopigments, which absorb light particles, i.e. photons, allowing for the interpretation of color. The cones in the eye of a typical viewer separate into three types, each responsible for taking in different lengths of light waves: L-cones perceive long-wavelength light, which translates chiefly to the color red; M-cones perceive medium-wavelength light, which translates chiefly to green; and S-cones perceive small-wavelength light, which translates chiefly to blue. The countless combinations of these kinds of waves hitting the eye at different volumes result in the million different colors that the average person observes over the span of his or her life—or even in a single day.

The cones in someone with colorblindness don't distinguish between light waves quite as well. For most, the problem is one of egregious overlap of wave absorption within a single cone. When an L-cone takes in too much green light, or an M-cone too much red, the eye will have problems differentiating between these colors. This results in a number of difficulties, including the classification of certain objects’ colors and the distinction between disparately colored objects as just that.

In much rarer cases, a severely colorblind viewer’s cones will lack altogether the ability to take in certain types of color waves. In my case though—and in that of 80 percent of colorblind individuals—the condition is not quite this dire, and as such, is not beyond the influence of modern science. Specialized lenses in glasses En Chroma help a colorblind eye to better discriminate between, for instance, long- and medium-wavelength light, enabling a more consistent and vivid distinction of greens from reds.

FROM NO GREEN TO ELECTRIC PINK

It was after taking a colorblindness test on the company’s website that I learned En Chroma’s glasses would work for me. Like many I’d taken before, the test featured a collection of slides, each depicting an arrangement of differently colored circles that displayed the image of a number. Depending on the arrangement, it was varyingly difficult to make out the figure in the picture. I took the test a handful of times, yielding results between moderate, strong, and extreme severity of a type of red-green colorblindness that En Chroma calls “deutan” (after deuteranopia, a variety of color vision deficiency affecting green photoreceptors).

It sounds more like a science fiction race than an optical disorder, but the label refers to anyone suffering from an abnormality in the M-cone. Reading through the website, I discovered the alternative diagnosis of “protan” (after protanopia), a type of red-green colorblindness referring to an abnormality in the L-cone. Though protans too could reap the benefits of En Chroma glasses, the site suggested that the lenses would have the most observable and immediate effects on a moderate or strong deutan user. I decided to give them a shot.

Ultimately, the glasses did much more than just better separate my greens from reds; they allowed for the appreciation of whole new shades. I could see multiple colors on a single leaf, a sunlit cloud contrasted with the midday sky, and in a neighbor's flower bed, my very first glimpse of true pink, which jumped electrically from every petal.

Photo by Alexandra Breines.

Not everything was transformed when I wore the glasses. I met many a floral arrangement, t-shirt, or graffiti mural that I still had trouble deciphering, or didn’t seem to be any different from what I saw with the naked eye. But there was plenty to revel in. Alongside my discovery of pink, one highlight was my first-ever sighting of the green, yellow, and red of a common traffic light. To me, it had always looked like one white light and two near-identical splotches of orange.

"HOW IS WHAT YOU SEE DIFFERENT FROM WHAT I SEE?"

But the very best thing is that I can finally answer that question—because now I can actually see the difference. So listen up, every friend, classmate, and co-worker who has ever asked: Here's my answer.

The next time you look upon a rose, sunset, or green street sign, imagine the object muted, as if it had been filtered through a few layers of colorless haze. What you’d wind up with is an object whose color is far less bright and vibrant—less alive, really—but less pronounced as well. It would lack intricacies like shading, rendering it one vague hue. You’d likely not even be able to guess exactly what color it is supposed to be. In fact, the color might even be too reliant on a certain specificity for me, without the glasses, to ever see it all.

Yes, that sounds like a bummer. (Actually, now that I know what I'm missing, my vision deficiency is more of a bummer than I ever realized.) The good news is, the science behind the lenses continues to be refined. Alongside En Chroma, many companies are developing glasses, contact lenses, cameras, apps, video games, and other digital programs to make life easier for the 280 million men and 1.7 million women worldwide that suffer from some degree of colorblindness. Scientists are researching how street lights, public maps, key cards, and household electronics can be altered to better accommodate the chromatically impaired. Maybe one day there won't be a difference between what you and I see.   

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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iStock

People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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Watch an Antarctic Minke Whale Feed in a First-of-Its-Kind Video
WWF
WWF

New research from the World Wildlife Fund is giving us a rare glimpse into the world of the mysterious minke whale. The WWF worked with Australian Antarctic researchers to tag minke whales with cameras for the first time, watching where and how the animals feed.

The camera attaches to the whale's body with suction cups. In the case of the video below, the camera accidentally slid down the side of the minke whale's body, providing an unexpected look at the way its throat moves as it feeds.

Minke whales are one of the smallest baleen whales, but they're still pretty substantial animals, growing 30 to 35 feet long and weighing up to 20,000 pounds. Unlike other baleen whales, though, they're small enough to maneuver in tight spaces like within sea ice, a helpful adaptation for living in Antarctic waters. They feed by lunging through the sea, gulping huge amounts of water along with krill and small fish, and then filtering the mix through their baleen.

The WWF video shows just how quickly the minke can process this treat-laden water. The whale could lunge, process, and lunge again every 10 seconds. "He was like a Pac-Man continuously feeding," Ari Friedlaender, the lead scientist on the project, described in a press statement.

The video research, conducted under the International Whaling Commission's Southern Ocean Research Partnership, is part of WWF's efforts to protect critical feeding areas for whales in the region.

If that's not enough whale for you, you can also watch the full 13-minute research video below:

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