Browsing in Barnes and Noble last week I was struck by the beauty of this cover, and the fact that an entire book could be devoted to the color blue. It was originally published in Germany as Blau in 2019, with its revised form in English appearing this July.
Blue’s author, Kai Kupferschmidt, holds a degree in molecular biomedicine from the University of Bonn and resides in Berlin. He is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine, where he writes about infectious diseases among other topics. To date he is best known for a paper he co-authored with Jon Cohen in Science on February 7, 2020, begging the prescient question: Will novel virus go pandemic or be contained?
Saturation with the coronavirus has rendered pandemic news almost mundane, while fascination with blue is endless, verging on timeless. It ranges from Blue Moon beer to Jeff Bezos in space (Blue Origin). Ultramarine, the rarest color ever seen, serves as the launch pad for Kufperschmidt’s exploration of blue: “In the Middle Ages, the pigment ultramarine was worth its weight in gold.”
“Blue stones such as lapis lazuli or sapphire derive their color from grids of crystals in which elements such as sulfur, iron, copper or cobalt arrange themselves in a particular way. Humans have learned from some of those stones how to create inorganic pigments in order to use them in our art. In plants, it is organic pigments, large molecules based on carbon, that make them appear blue. These inorganic an organic pigments form the basis of most of the shades of blue around us.”
This talk of blue took me back to a time when a Jew showed up in shul unfurling a gorgeous talis with a shade that had never been seen in Philadelphia before. It was Yossi Horowitz who was known to push the envelope, and he was following a school of thought about the origin of a mitzvah in the Torah involving the color of fringes placed on the corners of garments.
This ancient debate akin to a new kind of string theory has been rekindled in the search for nature’s techeiles (תְּכֵלֶת). Proceeding at a snail’s pace for many years, the issue has been catalyzed through resources such as websites dedicated entirely to the subject such as https://www.techeiles.org. Here is a nearly hour-long documentary that probes many of the issues involved. In particular, from the 10 minute through 30 minute mark, the video examines the origin of dyes in the ancient world, why the concept of תְּכֵלֶת seemed to fade, and how it has recently re-surfaced.
The rediscovery of the blue dye extracted from Murex, and the issues surrounding Chilazon, served as the impetus for a world-wide day of learning (“Techeiles Yom Iyun“) co-sponsored by the popular Torah Anytime site addressing these issues in January of this year.
The collagen white of the eye is in trouble when blue (blue sclera), as is the iris when blue signals a paucity of melanin (ocular albinism). Otherwise blue eyes, comparatively rare in the normal population, are considered by many to be attractive. Kai Kupferschmidt cites Goethe (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe of color theory fame) as feeling that the color blue had a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. Kai concludes that: “Blue is biology. Long before painters were bringing beauty to a canvas with their brushes, there were shimmering blue butterflies and flowers blooming in blue.” And to that I would add תְּכֵלֶת too.