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Surprising Science

Why We’re Fascinated by the Blue-Black, White-Gold Dress

The snobbery wars have erupted over photos of a sometimes blue-black, sometimes white-gold dress.

The snobbery wars have erupted over photos of a sometimes blue-black, sometimes white-gold dress. On one side sits an innocently fun picture that unexpectedly consumed pop culture’s attention, drawing celebrities like Taylor Swift to its mysterious aura.

On the other side, vanguards of culture mock our fascination, which will admittedly prove as brief as it is intense. American monologist Mike Daisey, creator of the much discussed “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” said of the culture’s dress fascination: “Our grandfathers died at Normandy for f**king this.”

At Wired, Adam Rogers breaks down the physical science of why some people see the dress as white-gold while others see blue-black. It has to do with which source of light your eye wants to subtract from the image — a common and necessary event that allows us to see one individual color from the full spectrum contained in a beam of light. 

“What’s happening here is your visual system is looking at this thing, and you’re trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis,” says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist who studies color and vision at Wellesley College. “So people either discount the blue side, in which case they end up seeing white and gold, or discount the gold side, in which case they end up with blue and black.”

When Wired put the dress under the microscope — well, Photoshop — the actual color content of the dress was much closer to blue and black than white and gold, but this doesn’t explain our fascination with the disagreement (unless, rather pessimistically, you think we’re all hopelessly distracted idiots).

As Rutgers University philosophy professor Tim Maudlin explains, there are real questions about how accurately the physical sciences represent the reality beyond our perceptions. To be sure, they are philosophical questions, but they help illuminate the nature of perspective, why we are fascinated by simple disagreements, and how recognizing what lies behind our disagreement can result in more fruitful discussions:

“Physics provides you with a mathematical formalism that has been tested in various ways and seems to be extremely powerful at allowing you to make certain kinds of predictions. But the mathematical formalism is not self-interpreting. You can study the mathematics as mathematics in great detail and still not be at all sure what in the physical world is represented by this mathematics…”

Photo credit: Wired


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