Colour me blue, or green, or anything you like.

Prof. Brian Cox’s recent documentary series, The Planets, on our solar system neighbours was brilliant though short and sweet. It’s on the iPlayer for the best part of a year so watch it if you can. It’s mind boggling and it makes me think how could there possibly be life anywhere else. As for humanoid aliens, especially ones which speak fluent English with American accents, no chance!

As I watched it n the BBC app, it threw up some other suggestions I might like and one of those is a documentary about colour. I watched two episodes and it’s okay, maybe a bit superficial scientifically but entertaining and well produced (link below).

The funny thing about colour is it probably doesn’t exist. Or, I should say, it didn’t exist until life developed eyes. And not all eyes: the earliest eye probably only distinguished between light and dark; then there are eyes which only see in monochrome shades. Even the human eye is limited, only able to detect light within the band known anthropologically as visible light. Only some critters, it is thought, see beyond that.

And even within the so-called visible light, different people see different colours. This idea came home to me this week when I was looking over a drawing with a colleague. It showed a floor plan of a building where each of the rooms was coloured corresponding to its use. A key to the side of the drawing explained what each colour meant bit there were so many room uses that some of the colours were indistinguishable at a glance.

My colleague pointed to a room and said it wasn’t clear what kind of room it was; it could, he said, be either one or other shades of green. This struck me as odd. I couldn’t determine which type of room it was either but to my eyes the colour was definitely one of the two shades of blue.

Admittedly it wasn’t lapis lazuli, more the colour of a clear morning sky with a little pollution. But it wasn’t green, no way. Or was it?

I had an odd notion that I could reproduce near enough the exact colour by mixing primaries, blue, red and yellow – pigments, not light, of course. But then the colleague would agree it was mixed perfectly, but he would still see it as green.

So, remember, when we’re visited by those little green men from outer space, they might actually be blue. Or, quite possibly to their eyes, deep x-ray-ultraviolet.

image (top): No. 61 (rust and blue) by Mark Rothko

Colour: The Spectrum of Science (BBC TV)

The Unfathomable Workings of Memory

The name just popped effortlessly into my consciousness like a long forgotten disc might drop randomly onto the platter of a mechanical jukebox. It made me feel like dancing…

He used to be this guy I worked alongside decades ago and, up until now, I could only remember him as Tom. His face, however, remains as a composite of several similar faces I have met over the years and will stay so, unless I happen to see him again. It’s unlikely and as the passing years have grown long, soon I’m wondering if he is still alive. I believe there’s a good chance but probably I’ll never know.

I did try to Google his name and scrolled down, as much as I could bear, looking for a recognisable face amongst the endless mugshots of strangers. Unless you’re searching for the bleeding obvious, search engines are an utter disappointment now, a complete waste of effort. Too superficial, populist and trivial. Like the arm-banded kid too afraid of the deep end.

The point about Tom, why I remember him, albeit vaguely, is that he was a rare deep guy. Even in the twiggy branch of the knowledge industry in which we were employed, he impressed me with his erudition and free-thinking. He was an interesting guy to talk with.

But how and why does the memory do that; why does it play such games. I hadn’t forgotten his name, as I thought for years, it was just misplaced somewhere in the grey matter. Buried. And, yes, jammed: I could almost sense a physical blockage and the frozen cogwheels up there if ever I try to recall a name or a word. Memory is a mysterious function but I bet Tom Warner would understand something about it.

What’s that word?

I suppose the analogy between mind and machinery is an old one. I think I blogged previously about “grinding gears” when something irritates. If you search for images which represent the thinking process, there are loads which show a cartoon silhouette of a head surrounding interconnecting clockwork cogs.

It’s like that now as I am failing to remember a word and it’s as if a spanner has been thrust into the machinery; everything seems jammed up; I can’t even let it go, it’s only by remembering the word that the machinery can be freed to work again.

Actually, to conflate the metaphor, it’s as if I can imagine the very word I’m after tangled in a web, much like a spider’s meal cocooned in silk. Or, to use the biblical, a thing seen through a glass, darkly. I imagine I can reach out and touch it, it’s so close but…

One of the things with working freelance is I get to move about different companies and, with luck, return to previous ones. Then I might be welcomed by a face I know, and they plainly know me well, but for the life of me I can’t put a name to the face. If I can survive that moment without needing to use their name, the first thing I’ll do is hit the company intranet and look up the list of names in the email contacts file, hoping the bell will ring.

If I’m out and about, or in the car, and a face comes to mind but no name – this might be someone I know personally or an actor, or musician, or any face really – I always resort to the alphabet trick. I begin to visualise the face with the letter A and if it still looks blank, move on to letter B. And so on. Usually, before I get to X, Y and Z, the letter and face click into place, like a key opening a lock, or a clock’s escapement turning a cog hand a notch.

While writing this, I remember how some people describe it as reaching for a word, as if they’re picking out a book from a too high shelf. Though I think these are probably wordy people to begin with. I admit it here that vocabulary has been my Achille’s Heel for too long.

Nope, still cannot get to that word! Grrrrind.

Perdón, pero no hablo español.

I’ve read how learning to play a musical instrument or learning a language does things to the brain which might reduce its risk of developing dementia in later life.

I’ve also read how playing the trumpet can tone up the soft palate enough to alleviate snoring. As a fan of this horn, I could easily kill two birds with one stone. In fact, I could perform Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain in time.

But, for now, my wife and I have decided to learn Spanish. There’s a conversational Spanish class in town once a week which we’ll try but being impatient, I googled to see whether there is anything on the marvellous web. I found a little free app, Duolingo, which does Spanish and other languages for English speakers. It’s organised as a bit of a game whereby you collect merit points for passing tests. Accumulating points allows you to move up a level, and the tests become harder. It recommends playing for 10-15 minutes each day; that’s about doable. Little and often! At the moment, it’s quite easy and intuitive though the audio clips in Spanish aren’t always clear.

Boy, is Spanish a tricky language for the tongue and ear, though? I thought French was hard, or I heard Spanish was easier than French but I’m not sure.

Next, I found an old BBC page for learning Spanish. This goes a bit deeper than Duolingo but I reckon the two will complement each other nicely.

Mi Vida Loca is an interactive video taking the form of a drama with actors. It places you as its protagonist, going to Madrid to stay in a friend’s apartment. You arrive at the airport with her address; she is away at the time. You are required to get a taxi and pay the exact fare. Once you are dropped off, you have to find the right flat by asking a passerby. Then, once you let yourself in, you discover evidence of recent occupation. Unexpectedly, it’s your friend’s sister who, thinking you’re an intruder, is about to strike the back of your noggin with the old paella pan. I see learning Spanish isn’t going to be a walk in the park with the old Beeb.

The Beeb course has a talking phrase book which may have been inspired by the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy.

No entres en pánico.

Mi Vida Loca – BBC Learning Spanish

tip: the interactive video requires the old flash player. If, like me, you use an iPad, you can watch it okay on the useful Puffin browser (free install) though it may need fast broadband.