The Scarlet Sunset circa 1830-40 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851.
How do you paint a masterpiece of … smog?
This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.
Meet Christos Zerefos from the Academy of Athens. He took a very close look at hundreds of landscape paintings, from the years 1500 to 2000. Specifically, he digitally extracted and analyzed the colors of sunsets. Strange … Across artists and locations, sunsets were always redder for some time periods, and greener for others.
Hmmm…. Well, sunsets are atmospheric phenomena. So he compared the trend to environmental events. And? Each red period coincided with a major volcanic eruption!
See, air particles filter out wavelengths of light, starting with high-energy blues and greens. In a dusty sky? Only low-energy reds reach your eye.
So artists have been recording air pollution for centuries!
Zerefos fed his color values into a model that predicts air pollution based on the sky’s red/green ratio. And it matched hard data from other sources! So his data can even be used to study historic climate change!
As for those winged cupids and naked muses in gardens – that’s not quite as scientifically accurate. I don’t think.
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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.