Whatever Happened to Roy G Biv?

By Kathy Reeves
14 September, 2016

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Roy was considered dead long before I heard the news in 2010. He had been my friend for remembering the colors of the spectrum since I was in middle school. After I became a teacher, I introduced him to my students each year. He was a favorite member of the science classroom.

Imagine my surprise when I began product development on the Elementary Science Starters and learned that not only was he deceased, some people believe he never really existed. This topic came up again while working on our newest elementary product, the Science Sidekicks. Roy G Biv, a mnemonic for remembering red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, can't exist if color physicists don't recognize indigo as a color of the visible spectrum. If indigo isn't recognized by many optical physicists, then why was it included in the first place?

Isaac Newton was the first to describe the colors of the spectrum. He realized that when we use a prism to break apart light, we get the visual spectrum. We know that each color blends with its neighboring color, resulting in a gradual flow, so he could have easily named any number of colors. Apparently Newton decided on the number seven before determining the colors.

But why the number seven? In the 6th century BC, the Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras applied numbers to things observed in the world. He determined that the seven musical notes had a relationship to mathematical equations and connected the seven heavenly bodies that were known at the time to mathematical patterns. His studies grew into a philosophy called Pythagoreanism. The number seven became a magical and mystical number that connected mathematics with natural phenomena.

Fast forward to Sir Isaac Newton. It's reported that he initially divided the spectrum into five colors: red, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Then he considered the Pythagorean belief that color and music are connected. If there are seven different tonal notes in a musical octave, shouldn't there be seven colors of the spectrum? Insert orange and indigo and Roy G Biv was born.

Modern physics generally accepts a six-color spectrum. Indigo is omitted because few people can differentiate the wavelengths well enough to see it as a separate color.  The six-color spectrum also fits the model of the color wheel, with red, yellow, and blue being primary colors. Orange, green, and violet are secondary colors and are spaced between the primary colors. Indigo would be considered a tertiary color.

Which brings us back to Roy. I'm reluctant to let him ride off into the indigo-free sunset. What do you think about Roy G Biv, and how are you teaching the colors of the spectrum?

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