COOL CLASSES: “Case Studies in Chemistry: The Science of Color and Light”

COOL CLASSES: “Case Studies in Chemistry: The Science of Color and Light”

Class name: “Case Studies in Chemistry: The Science of Color and Light”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor Stephen Podowitz-Thomas


Here’s what Podowitz-Thomas had to say about the class:

Our perception that the sky appears blue, an apple appears red, and the sun appears a yellowish white at midday are all observations of the color of things that we encounter on a daily basis. In this course, we discuss the underlying physical processes that are involved in the production of light and the ways in which its interaction with matter leads to the colors we see in the objects that make up the world around us. The chemistry of the pigments in paints and the phosphors in LED and fluorescent light fixtures are covered, along with current challenges and opportunities that advances in the design and chemistry of energy-efficient lighting technology have presented for the way in which we may control the colors of the objects that they light. We also discuss the ways in which color scientists quantify color and the challenges that are involved in building a standardized system that is based on not only a physical, but also a physiological and potentially social, phenomenon whose perception may vary widely across and within populations. I hope students will walk away with an enhanced understanding of what color is based on a more complete picture of the physical and physiological processes underlying their perception of color.

I wanted to create this course because I believe that discussing the science of color and light provides a unique avenue for having students start to think about the ways in which the microscopic world of atoms and electrons relates to the macroscopic properties of objects like their color, and how this relationship relates to—and is perhaps different from—our perception of the color of these objects. (Continued after the gallery.)

Color perception is something almost all of my students experience on a nearly constant basis, but if you were to ask them to define color, you would be hard-pressed to pin down a single comprehensive definition.  As a student, I had a very similar understanding of color to my students. As a graduate student, I worked with materials that emit visible light when irradiated with X-rays, and became fascinated by the way in which light interacts with matter. Even with this interest, I had a very limited understanding of how the light produced by the materials I worked with translated into the colors I saw. After completing my Ph.D., I worked for a company researching and developing the materials that actually make white LED light bulbs look white. During this time, I was introduced to the field of color science, which was an eye-opening experience and very much changed the way that I understand what “color” is.

Ultimately, I believe that defining “what color is” depends on what information about color you are looking for, but any definition can be informed by a scientific and quantitative understanding of how objects interact with light and the phenomena by which mixtures of light are perceived by humans.


See what other courses the Chemistry Department is offering this semester.

Photos by Leigh Taylor.

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience. 

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *