Human color vision gives people the ability to see nanoscale differences

Jul 17, 2015


The human eye is an amazing instrument and can accurately distinguish between the tiniest, most subtle differences in color. Where human vision excels in one area, it seems to fall short in others, such as perceiving minuscule details because of the natural limitations of human optics.

In a paper published today in The Optical Society’s new, high-impact journal Optica, a research team from the University of Stuttgart, Germany and the University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu, Finland, has harnessed the ‘s color-sensing strengths to give the eye the ability to distinguish between objects that differ in thickness by no more than a few nanometers—about the thickness of a cell membrane or an individual virus.

This ability to go beyond the diffraction limit of the human eye was demonstrated by teaching a small group of volunteers to identify the remarkably subtle color differences in light that has passed through thin films of titanium dioxide under highly controlled and precise lighting conditions. The result was a remarkably consistent series of tests that revealed a hitherto untapped potential, one that rivals sophisticated optics tools that can measure such minute thicknesses, such as ellipsometry.

“We were able to demonstrate that the unaided human eye is able to determine the thickness of a thin film—materials only a few nanometers thick—by simply observing the color it presents under specific lighting conditions,” said Sandy Peterhänsel, University of Stuttgart, Germany and principal author on the paper. The actual testing was conducted at the University of Eastern Finland.

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4 comments on “Human color vision gives people the ability to see nanoscale differences

  • few nanometers thick

    Stunning – with certain conditions, test subjects were able to infer (by color sensitivity) very close to accurate, the thickness (in nanometers) of piled sheets.

    Another experiment caught my eye (eyes roll):

    Hm, would this be the exact opposite, or just similar, to Neils Harbson (sp?) implanted devise that translates color into sound (he is color-blind).

    Senses are cool.

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  • Cool, yes, and completely subjective.
    The theories presented by the immortal Schopenhauer and the marvelous Goethe, in the Nineteenth Century, rest on their idea that color is wholly subjective – an activity of the retina in which the the retina divides and then intellectually perceives colors rather than the objective color wave theory.
    The wave theory of color (which is analogous to the vibration theory of sound) is what most (if not all) scientists cling to today, if I am not mistaken.
    This is yet another example of the retrogressive nature of scientific and intellectual progress.—We were closer to the truth in the 19th Century.
    A wave is not a color. And a vibration is not a sound. The former (in itself, as a wave) cannot be seen and the latter (in itself, as a vibration) cannot be heard. Anyone who thinks otherwise just does not get it.
    Thus spoke . . . me.

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  • P.S. As for chromesthesia, I am sure there are color associations produced by tones, by music (especially on LSD, from what I’ve heard) – but let’s not confuse the two senses. We don’t hear colors or see sounds. The great and highly influential reductionist Wittgenstein (in his horrible Blue and Brown Books) refers to, or characterizes, thoughts as feelings, for example. Infuriating. The temptation or tendency to conflate separate and distinct faculties and senses is a persistent one.

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  • 4
    Pinball1970 says:

    This is fascinating and these results do not surprise me at all

    As one poster said colour is subjective on this I disagree to an extent

    Human Test results can be correlated with readings on a spectrophotometer using the same illuminant.

    Colour differences seen by an individual can be astoundingly accurate (as per the results in these tests) even without training.

    Defining an absolute colour will vary depending on the individuals biology and this is where subjectivity comes in.

    Colour difference equations can generate objective results, numbers and distances in colour space

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