A page from the "Causes of Color" exhibit...

What light reaches the eye?

The Visible Spectrum

As humans, our color vision influences everything from our art and poetry to the colors we paint our homes and the clothing we choose to buy. Yet, we rarely question the mechanics of our color perception – or what we may not be able to see.

How do we perceive color?

We perceive color when the different wavelengths composing white light are selectively interfered with by matter (absorbed, reflected, refracted, scattered, or diffracted) on their way to our eyes, or when a non-white distribution of light has been emitted.

Visible light is merely a small part of the full electromagnetic spectrum, which extends from cosmic rays at the highest energies down through the middle range (gamma rays, X- rays, the ultraviolet, the visible, the infrared, and radio waves) all the way to induction-heating and electric-power-transmission frequencies at the lowest energies. Note that this is the energy per quantum (photon if in the visible range) but not the total energy; the latter is a function of the intensity in a beam.

The visible light that humans perceive is a tiny fraction of the full electromagnetic spectrum.

We can detect the range of light spectrum from about 400 nanometers (violet) to about 700 nanometers (red). We perceive this range of light wavelengths as a smoothly varying rainbow of colors, otherwise known as the visual spectrum.