Rainbow Colors for a Rainbow Community

Posted on June 29, 2020


Yesterday I wrote about Yip Harburg, the lyricist who put the rainbow in Oz.

Today, I celebrate the science of color with one of my favorite writers, Oliver Sacks. In his memoir, Uncle Tungsten, Ollie writes of his love for chemistry and how colors are made from chemical reactions. Not only did Sacks love the colors of the rainbow, he was a gay man who lived a majority of his life in the closet, but in the last third of his life, he was out and proud. He met the love of his life, Billy Hayes, at age 75, and Billy stayed with him til the end. They shared a great love.

Oliver also had a great love for science. In the chapter, titled “Chemical Recreations,” he recounts how his family members shared their love of chemistry with him, and how he began his own study.

After the war, with my new interest in minerals and colors, my brother, David, who had grown some crystals when he did chemistry at school, showed me how to do this myself. [He then focuses on his love of the color


The most mysterious and beautiful of all the blues for me was that produced by dissolving alkali metals and liquid ammonia (Uncle Dave showed me this). The fact that metals could be dissolved at all was startling at first, but the alkali metals were all soluble in liquid ammonia (some to an astounding degree – cesium would completely dissolve in one-third its weight of ammonia). When the solutions became more concentrated, they suddenly changed character, turning into lustrous bronze-colored liquids that floated on the blue – and in this state they conducted electricity as well as a liquid metal like Mercury. The alkaline earth metals would work as well, and it did not matter whether the solute was sodium or potassium, calcium or barium – the ammoniacal solutions, in every case, were an identical deep blue, suggesting the presence of some substance, some structure, something common to them all. It was like the color of the azurite in the Geological Museum, the very color of heaven.

Many of the so-called transition elements infused their compounds with characteristic colors – most cobalt and manganese salts were pink; most copper salts deep blue or greenish blue; most iron salts pale green; and nickel salts a deeper green. Similarly, and minute amounts, transition elements gave many gems their particular colors. Sapphires, chemically, were basically nothing but corundum, a colorless aluminum oxide, but they could take on every color in the spectrum – with a little bit of chromium replacing some of the aluminum, they would turn ruby red; with a little titanium, a deep blue; with ferrous iron, green; with ferric iron, yellow. And with a little vanadium, the corundum began to resemble alexandrite, alternating magically between red and green – red in incandescent light, green in daylight. With certain elements at least, the merest smattering of atoms could produce a characteristic color. No chemist could have “flavored” corundum with such delicacy, a few atoms of this, a few ions of that, to produce an entire spectrum of colors [67, 79].

I did not take high school chemistry class, nor did I take it in college, so Oliver’s book is the most in-depth reading I’ve done in the subject. Not surprisingly, Ollie can make even a subject I’ve avoided all my life interesting. Yet again, I have to say how much I love his style, his voice. I will read about any subject if the writer is Oliver Sacks.

Oliver lived in California and loved it there. California convinced him to move to the USA from England.

As PRIDE month comes to a close, I’d like to draw some attention to the organizations that serve the LGBTQ community. One in particular that I’d like to draw attention to today is the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center. Over the weekend, the center was attacked in a hate crime, and now, instead of using funds they’ve raised to serve the needs of the community, they have to repair the building.

Oakland LGBTQ Community Center provides essential services to the community. They say, on their FB page, “As an organization that is founded and led by Black queer people, we clearly understand that so much more needs to be done in the East Bay to help LGBTQ+ residents, particularly Black/African American, African, Indigenous, Latino/Latinx, and Asian LGBTQ community members, to feel safe and supported and to know how to report hate crimes. How can we do everything possible to keep our LGBTQ community as safe as possible in Oakland and in Alameda County.
There must also be increased awareness among public officials and the general public, about how the combination of homophobia, transphobia and racism, negatively impacts the health and wellness of our community as a whole.”

Someone quite dear to me considers the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center a home away from home, and I am heartsick that their community has been attacked this way. If you feel moved to contribute to the center–or an LGBTQ community center of your choice– I would deeply appreciate it.

Related Links

Oakland LGBTQ Community Center CEO responds to vandalism

Oakland LGBTQ Pride 2019

Oliver Sacks on Uncle Tungsten: My Chemical Boyhood

A Story of Blue

Bill Nye the Science Guy and the Chemistry of Colors


lisa eddy is a writer, researcher, educator, advocate,  musician, and gardener.

O20200329_095043n Twitter: @lisa_eddy

On email: lisagay.eddy1@gmail.com