An artistic vibration
If Winifred Nicholson were alive today I’m sure she would have approved of Prof Brian Cox’s explanation of the significance of light in the last of his series Wonders of the Universe.
For Winifred Nicholson art was a means of exploring and expressing her fascination with light. From an early stage, she was moved to capture the pure and iridescent colours found in nature, “such as those seen in a flower petal or in mother of pearl”.
In her later life she was fascinated by the prism as a way of revealing the nature of light. She wanted to paint “the colour that hid beneath another or flickered briefly on the edge before disappearing. Unseen colours at either end of the spectrum and on either side of the rainbow, in infra-red and ultra-violet light, colours only revealed to the human eye by the prism. (Unknown Colour, p251).
She could perceive the “unseen colours” on the edge of the spectrum, the colours that are “felt rather than seen”, “undiscovered as yet artistic vibration…..” and was fascinated by what she called the “dark rainbow” and the “void”.
To such an extent that she wrote urgent letters to her friend Prof Glen Schaefer, a Canadian physicist and biologist, stressing that it was “important” that he investigated this area — on the grounds that artists can only explore the visible rainbow but scientists have the tools to deal with the experience that “we cannot with the tools of our eyes”. She intuited that important secrets were held within the invisible rainbow. However, she also realised that if normal scientific methods were used, what she was searching for would not be revealed. She urged him to go about it “not as an analyst cutting things to pieces, but as an artist bringing them together”.
Brian Cox explained that it is through understanding the nature of light that we can understand the origins of the universe. “There is a vast amount of information and detail in every beam of light. And that information is written in colour.”
And beyond the visible spectrum, the world is illuminated by invisible light – radio and microwaves — the oldest light in the universe. “Every second light from the beginning of the universe is raining down on the surface of the earth in a ceaseless torrent. If our eyes could only see it, the sky would be ablaze with this primordial light both day and night.”
This invisible light bathes the entire universe in a perpetual buzz, reaching Earth from all directions. With an ordinary radio it is possible to capture the light released just after the big bang.
And then, around 500 million years ago, multicellular life with complex eyes appeared virtually “intact”, and once one species got eyes, others developed eyes. Eyes were fundamental to the evolution of evermore complex forms of life. The evolution of eyes have not only served to ensure living creatures the greatest chance of physical survival. They allow human beings to look up and out, to wonder and to seek to understand our origins.