On Edwin Land’s Work on Color Vision.

by Gerald Huth on May 11, 2006

As a scientist I have been saddened by the treatment accorded Edwin Land and his work on color vision in the scientific literature. Land is consistently referred to as an ‘inventor’ thus demeaning any ‘science’ that may be associated with his experiments and ideas. I have studied most of Land’s published work and it is characterized by a rarely seen straightforward logic and lucidity (as to description of methods used and results obtained).. truly a hallmark of the scientific method! The work of one other scientist comes to mind in this regard, the writings of the physicist David Bohm.

A device commonly tossed off to demean Land’s work is that ‘most aspects of his demonstrations were already well known’. This is a common thread seen most notably in a paper, to which I was referred by one purporting to speak for ‘vision science’, with the curious title ‘Land! Land!’ (I’ll not even provide the reference as I do not view the paper as in any way to be objective science). This method of obfuscation seems to have existed even in antiquity as noted in the quote that I use from da Vinci:

“Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory.”
Leonardo da Vinci

No attempt is made to come to grips with, and actually explain, Land’s anomalous color vision experiments and results that began in 1955 and proceeded until Land’s death. Simply saying that these experiments had been ‘done before’ implies that they need no explanation. But they do!

And now there is an explanation – in the geometric view of light interaction with the retina.

I suggest that anyone interested in color vision actually read Land’s original papers. I obtained a compendium of these from the Rowland Institute in Cambridge, MA (originally founded by Land and now subsumed into Harvard University). A Ms. Holley Perry of that Institute was very kind in sending these to me. I do not know if they are still available but any serious student of vision should try to obtain them. Also instructive is viewing a documentary film made by the BBC in 1988 (‘Colourful Notions’). This film dwells on the subject of the riddle of color constancy in vision and includes a segment where Dr. Land personally demonstrates the essence of his color vision experiments.



Leave a Comment

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Jon Price June 9, 2006 at 8:18 am

Do you have any idea how I can locate a copy of the video “Colourful Notions?”

thank you

ghuth June 9, 2006 at 8:47 am

I am sorry but I do not know. My VHS copy came, out of the blue, from a friend a number of years ago – quite amazing! I have since copied it onto a CD but don’t feel free to distribute it. You might query the BBC.
Thanks for the comment,
Gerry Huth

Fan of Don Lapre December 22, 2006 at 8:28 am

Great writing….it has been an awesome experience reading this stuff :)

Fan of Don Lapre

Mark McCourt February 5, 2007 at 2:43 pm

I am a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. My specialty is vision science. I have somehow lost my copy of “Colourful Notions”, which I used for many years to help my class understand the concepts of color constancy, single unit recording, modular cortical architecture. I originally recorded it to VHS straight from a broadcast. I see from a comment above that you have a copy, but are not inclined to share it. I wonder whether you might make an exception for academic uses, or whether you have subsequently learned if it is available for purchase from the BBC. Many thanks.



ghuth February 5, 2007 at 6:40 pm

Many thanks for your interest .A friend made a CD for me from the old VHS tape that I have. I will look into having another made! I have not heard if the BBC is making copies of the show available.

Rodrigo Olmedo February 8, 2007 at 4:04 pm

I am in a similar case of Dr Mark McCourt. The CD will be of great value for our courses on visual perception. Do you have another extra extra copy?

You site is a good contribution on the field. Thank you.

Richard Bentley April 13, 2007 at 6:14 am

I managed to record Colourful Notions in the mid 1980′s on VHS tape and have now made a DVD of it.

In the next few days, I will be posting an avi version of the show in the newsgroups a.b.documentaries and a.b.multimedia.documentaries. Somone requested this. The DVD VOB files in NTSC will be posted afterwards in the same groups.

psychstudent November 15, 2007 at 11:15 pm

I thought you would like to know that my lecturer Bart Anderson, a well known scientist who has published in Nature, speaks very highly of Land in his lectures.

ghuth November 18, 2007 at 4:52 pm

Please congratulate him on is insight! Land was a true genius.
I have received more “anti-Land” comments on this site than on any other subject! I suggest trying to get a compendium of all of Land’s papers from the Harvard/Rowland Instiute. It is fascinating reading.
Thanks for your comment.
Ojai, CA

Michael Burke January 12, 2008 at 6:37 pm

Maybe you have enough clout to persuade Scientific American to digitize the Land articles from the late 1950s and make them available as a download.
I read these in the early 60s and haven’t been able to sight them since.

Great blog, thanks

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