What colour is a dolphin? Students get to grips with some key issues...
“What song the Sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.”
Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk (1658)
I was delighted to learn that one of my colleagues broke off a lesson the other day for thirty seconds to muse on the colour of dolphins.
What colour is a dolphin? Water refracts light differently from air, so the colour of things – meaning our perception of their colour – will differ,
depending on whether we are underwater, or looking through air and water, or if the dolphin is leaping through a hoop. But then a dolphin leaping through
a hoop will still be pretty wet. Does a dry dolphin show its true colour? And shouldn’t we anyway be asking what colour a dolphin is, not to our sensory
apparatus, but to a dolphin? Surely we know enough about a dolphin’s retinal array to hazard a guess? And then of course, human colour perception can
vary wildly. I was reading not long about about tetracromats, who have four, not three, cones in their eyes and can see millions more shades of colour
than you or I (assuming you are not colour-blind, or a tetrachromat).
And so on. Thirty seconds does not do it justice. A digression deserves to be properly exhausted. Who, anyway, is to say what is digression and what
is not? We state our aims at the beginning of a lesson, we may have a plan; but a plan is just another way of thinking about the future, it isn’t the
future, or the lesson, itself. So a digression, in a sense, is the lesson. We proceed crablike (if not dolphin-like), sideways at our objects. Misdirection
tricks the brain into learning.
All very well and interesting. English has its high priests of digression – Laurence Sterne springs to mind – and its culture of waywardness. No poet
of consequence ever got at his or her object by frontal assault. But lessons are not poems (more’s the pity); they have a purpose, a function and,
with a bit of luck, an outcome. Life has its paths laid out, and we should stick to them, most of the time.
But the question remains: what colour is a dolphin? I suppose you would have to say a gradated grey, although there are black and white versions, and
there used to be blind river dolphins who in the mud and slurry of the Yellow River were no colour at all; but if you do an online search for dolphin
drawings, they seem universally to be blue. The dolphin is the genius locus of the sea, spirits of the Mediterranean bearing off Arion and his lyre;
so when we call dolphins to mind, we see blue.