The color purple

Part One of my new book, The Glass Universe, concerns “The Colors of Starlight.” It opens with a quote about stellar colors from the first lady of American astronomy, Maria Mitchell: 

"I swept around for comets about an hour, and then I amused myself with noticing the varieties of color. I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety. . . . What a pity that some of our manufacturers shouldn’t be able to steal the secret of dyestuffs from the stars."

The glass-plate photographs that the Harvard women examined in their studies were particularly sensitive to light from the blue-violet end of the visual spectrum – a fact that has sensitized me to violet light wherever it appears. In a recent re-reading of E. M. Forester’s classic, A Room With a View, I found the blue and violet hues celebrated beautifully: 

"From her feet the ground sloped sharply into the view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems, collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth."