The Blue Mystique

A treatise on color, particulary blue, and a defense of mercury vapor

by Billy Gard


I was looking out of my attic window one night. Whilest grazing down at the darkened landscape, the darkness broken by numerous light sources. Then I singled out one particular light that was a deep ultramarine blue. I didn't have the first guess as to what it was. But it was such a sublime, glorious view, a whole symphony of music embodied in one speck of light. I guess it is the most mystical experience before you get to find out what it is. Eventually I went out for a night walk to seek out this light source. Eventually I found the light to be in someone's back yard. Up close it looked square. It was on a subsequent day that the owners were present and I got the chance to ask them what it was. A bugkiller. I didn't know what one was until this. And this was a much darker and deeper blue then the more pale ones they make now. It was a small black light tube covered by a window.

More recently I looked across to a hill and amidst the dirty-brown sodium lights was one light that stood out from the others because it was a pale blue, and sort of bigger than the others. I figured it wasn't a TV screen because it was a steady glow. It was too large to be a street light. I looked at it through the binoculars, and it was more evident that it was bigger than other lights, and now it had a fascinating granular look but I still couldn't make it out.. A couple of times I went driving around the streets up there to try to find it. It was only easy to see from a distance, so this was a hit and miss. But eventually while slowly surveying a line of houses, displayed in a window was a neon Mickey Mouse. I knew this was the light I sought. It was a combination of red shorts, a yellow face, and a blue body. The blue predominated, as indicated by its look in the distance. Seen from my patio, it turned out I was looking at it through tree branches. It was covered when the foliage grew on it though.

Color has always affected me in a deep way. My experience with colored objects and lights is an intense one, particarly in the case of transparent objects and sources of light. Thus I remember going at times through mom's jewelry box to look at the gems. I also like the crystalline LED pilot lights on machines all over ranging from baby food warmers to computers. Not to mention stoplights, and the most celestial looking lights of all, which are constellations of bluish-white mercury vapor.

While I find the four basic colors red, green, yellow and blue each beautiful in a different way, I am mostly focusing on blue here because its beauty is more interesting; it digs deeper into your being then the other. I am captivated quickly by blue lights such as a dimmer light on a dashboard (the deeper blue the better) and the blue flame of a butane lighter. It's just too bad they haven't come up with a cigar tobacco blend that glows a blue-hot instead of red-hot. But most cigar afficianados would tell me I should leave well enough alone.

I want to focus even more specifically on "cool white", which is the white with a bluish cast given off by fluorescent, metal halide and mercury vapor lamps, because I am attracted particularly by this color. And they bring out the color of things better, making you feel like you are outdoors. And darn it the light itself is just pretty.

Probably the most ubiquitous cool-white light source I remember are mercury vapor street lights. I don't know about you, but I find these lights especially beautiful. When riding in a car at night and approaching a town, I would see constellations of bluish-white dots of light polka-dotting the distant hillsides. Whenever I see parking lots or industrial areas polkadotted with mercury vapor or metal halide lamps shimmering with blue-white, I recapture the beauty that once characterized the entire city. From my early childhood, the bright glorious icy blue-white glow of mercury vapor evoked a mystical, spiritual response in me. It seemed to be made of the untouchable quintessence, like I was seeing into the pure light of heaven. It has that look of an “uncreated light” that, when turned on, looks like it has always been on and always will be.

By now you can imagine what I think of the dirty-orange sodium vapor lamps. They just don't have that beauty or charm. Now rather than the light pollution caused by lighting clouds up with bluish white light, it is now light pollution caused by lighting clouds up with dirty orange light. Make no mistake about it. The light is still bright, shrill, and moderne, just now it's not pretty.

A nice cool-white has that daylight look that makes you want to run outside and play, whereas a yellowish, or “soft-white” light definitely makes me feel like I have gone indoors. But the much more bluish white of mercury vapor seemes to take you into the still greater Outdoors of the celestial realm. I regretted that they were located way up on poles where I couldn't reach out and touch them and be “blessed”.

Back when I was five, I saw the wire reaching from the corner of our house next to the TV, out to the power pole with the street light. I thought that just as the lights at the top of a drive-in movie screen went on when the movie was over, the street light would go on when the feature TV show was over. It was around then I also had a dream that there was a stair that led to the top of a street light pole, and I could give that blue round thing on top of the light a twist to turn it on and off. Without a stair, only a grownup could reach it of course.

I've noticed that mercury bulbs that are coated are closer to a neutral white than the colder blue color of a clear bulb. These are the ones referred in today's lighting vernacular as “deluxe white”. The coating probably includes the phosphers that are commonly used to enhance the color-rendering of the light. The only time I object to “color doping” techniques is when the intent is to yellow-down the light, as if to imply that softening the white by toning down that “excessive blue” is an unqualified improvement. The reference to it as “color corrected” carries the insinuation that the color of virgin mercury vapor is incorrect.

The public library back in Grand Forks where my mom brought me had high ceilings lit with giant mercury vapor light panels. My first impression of them was that these were skylights and it was gloriously sunny outside. I no doubt came clear to me on a cloudy day that the lights were indeed artificial. I find something about cool-white lighting that becomes a library because its crispy clean color is stimulating and energizes you to feel alert for study and reading. And I believe they knew that at the library. Cool white has a perky, bright look that puts a spring in your step. It seems to awaken a portion of my brain that regular lighting leaves dormant.

I once had a dream that I had somehow gotten hold of a small mercury vapor bulb, about the size of a golf ball, but still with the typical mercury vapor bulb shape, tubular with a bulge. I believe I turned it on a time or two, and sure enough, it had a lovely blue-white rather than the insipid yellow-white color. Regrettably I think it burned out. But more regrettably it was a dream.

It was March 30th, 2001. I finally got my hands on my own mercury vapor light from Bulbman. This is an “Eye” self-ballasted 160-watt lamp, which means it works in a regular lamp socket. This is an elliptic bulb, longer than a regular bulb, a typical shape for a mercury vapor bulb. When I turned it on it at first looked like a regular 75-watt incandescnet light. But it gradually brightens and turns a cooler white, because mercury vapor has to “warm up”. At first the man at the store didn't see the anomaly in its immediate warm white appearance, and turned it off before it had a chance to brighten up. But another time he left it on long enough for it to do so. The problem is that he turned it off and on again too soon and it didn't light. It seemed to burn out because he didn't wait for the “hot restrike” period.

When I brought one home I turned it on and it bathed my room in a blazing cool-white that rivaled even the new full-spectrum bulbs available today. The relative blueness of the light is evident if you happen to have incandescent bulbs on nearby. Then it looks as if I had really dragged a streetlight into my room. You get to “see what you've been missing” in the colors it brings out in things. If you were to see the light from this lamp around a corner, you'd think it was an outdoor patio.

This bulb was rated at 3700K, not all that bluish as mercury vapors go. The bulb describes itself as a “blended mercury lamp”. It appears that the initial yellow-white glow is from a regular filament added to “blend” with the mercury vapor light. I noted that the greenish blue color of the mercury capsule is partially visible through the more “softer” white of the envelope, and because the mercury glow is the brightest component, the total light ends up being a good cool-white.

The next day I did the ultimate test on my new light. I opened my curtains and headed outside to look at my window and see my light from across the street, in the context of the neighborhood lights. Now I get to look at a “streetlight” that happens to be in my own window.

The Bulbman store in town got in a supply of Stanpro compact fluorescents that came in 5000K, which is technically the purest white. So I started myself off on four of them. They bathed my hallway and my office in a crisp cold-white blaze. It sure looks more crisp than the two hot-white 2700K, almost brown, compact fluorescents that the city sent me free.

On July 10th, when a really stupid crash destroyed my floor lamp and its mercury bulb, I got myself two more of the Stanpros and also four Excelite compact fluorescents in 6400K, described as “daylight”. This is truely a cold bluish-white. This looks a good deal more like the mercury then even the true mercury vapor I once had. I used these for my office and bathroom. When I'm in the shower, I can see the bluish-white gleaming through my semi-transparent shower curtains. One of these lights developed a round crack in the outer decorative ball. I pulled it apart, and broke off the rest of the ball in small pieces, having to deal with broken glass. What is left is a light with three cool-white U-tubes. And in a way is more beautiful than the origional look, as the glowing body is smaller and brighter, more like mercury vapor.

With the new emphasis on light therapy, and the attempt to imitate natural sunlight with the cool-white therapeutic “light boxes” that are now available, it seems ironic that there is an obvious move afoot in home lighting to phase out the cool white. The descriptions of it as cold, harsh (cf. “soft white”), sterile, and even sickly looking attests to this aim. The assault on cool white can be seen in lights sold in home supply stores. The bias towards yellow is clearly seen in the reference to fluorescent lights with a yellowish cast as “soft white”. Those compact fluorescent lights that replace an incandsecent bulb are not about to be offered in the “harsh white” (bluish) in your home supply store. They're pushing these lights strictly on the basis of reduced power consumption, not at all about appearance, so they must design them to look just like the filament bulbs they replace. They aren't being marketed on the basis of any dissatisfaction with the appearance of a tungsten bulb. They probably coat the outside of the tube's surface with a yellow gel to “soften” the white. I wonder if there's a way to scratch off the coating so I can enjoy the full brightness of the light in it's native fluorescent glory.

There is something about the psychology of cool-white that is losing its welcome in the domestic scene. People are unwittingly catching cyanophobia. You may be wondering “Aren't people already too preoccupied with more pressing matters to be worried about how to de-blue our environment?” If you spent a lot of quiet time reflecting on the way people think today, and stop intermittantly to look at a cool white mercury vapor lamp, and put the pieces of the puzzle together, you ought to figure this one out. You will then see how it can merit so much angst.

Blue, especially a blue light source, has that unique look of glorious quietude, of distant lands where the sky meets the sea - and even of heavenly realms. It is the color of twilight, of the distant northern regions. It stills the mind as no other color, so you can think things through in a deep way. It is in a sense the spiritual color, inspiring thoughts of God.

You also know that society has been moving away from the idea of God toward a crude and materialialistic orientation. Look at how the orchestra is replaced by “angry” music. Look at how beauty is replaced by “artistic integrity”. Look at how refinement of dress is losing its place to increasingly “grunge” dress, with ties replaced by nose-rings. Look at how less detailed and crafted architecture and cars are made. A culture moving in this direction is bound to move toward a preference toward the redder colors that smack of body functions and the earth beneath our feet, hence the dirty-orange sodium street lights. I suspect that the presence of blue light sources at least subconsciously disturbs us by reminding us of things celestial.

You may be thinking at this point “Where's the cyanophobia? I see bluish-white lights all over the place.” Indeed you do, but not streetlights. The ones you are noticing are on private property. The government hasn't come around to outlawing bluish-white lights at this time. They haven't found a good rationalization for it yet, such as cool white causing skin cancer or glaucoma. But nothing is stopping them from making sure that every mercury vapor bulb that burns out on a streetlight is replaced by a sodium one.

There is one place where government would heartily want to perpetuate the use of blue lighting. Notice that they put blue lights on police cars, but forbid similar blue lights on personal vehicles. By creating a strong association of blue with government power, they hope to become a God figure to us. The association of blue with our higher, nobler natures is quite definitely known.

A recent news article covered concern that the government has taken on about the new high intensity headlights seen on some new cars, which appear to be metal halides. In passing they mentioned as one “additional problem” the harsh blue color of the lights, compared to the soft white (yellow) color of regular headlights.

My intuitive conclusion is this: The blue color of the headlights is the only cause of their concern. Their talk at length about the safety concerns of glare and beam angle is merely a red herring. Their real worry is filling of the roads with headlights of the same bluish-white light that they worked so hard to remove from the streetlighting. The government does nothing in vain, and it has some definite reason why this shade of blue-white must be conspicuous by its absence.

The article about headlights may have talked at length about the danger of dazzling from the glare, the angle of the beams, as if the issue raised by these new lights is a complex one with many considerations. But I suspect that the only thing that will come of this is an order to make the bluish color of the lights more yellow, and the issue will be dropped for good.

Another question may arise that deserves some explanation. And that is how ambient daylight takes on a cool-white appearance when the sun itself is yellow. Evidently, the air does a kind of color split of the sun's light. The bluer rays are scattered by the atmosphere, so they reach your eyes from all different directions, while the redder rays travel mostly unhindered. This gives the sky its blue color and makes the sun itself look more yellow. The total light falling on any point where the sun and most of the sky are both in direct view ends up being close to the true color of sunlight. A cloudy day at noon shows the real color of daylight. If you can see the clouds at high noon through a skylight, you may think for a moment that it is an ultra-cool white flourescent panel. This also answers the similar, more humorous question of why everything doesn't look blue because of the sky's illumination.

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