An Accidental Case of the Blues
Play • 24 min

Pigments color the world all around us, but where do those colors come from? Historically, they’ve come from crushed sea snails, beetles, and even ground-up mummies. But new pigments are still being discovered in unexpected places, and for researcher Mas Subramanian, a new color came, well, out of the blue. Overheard’s Amy Briggs ventured into the National Geographic photo studio to see the new color—the first blue pigment of its kind discovered since Thomas Jefferson was president.

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Read about how underwater cave explorers discovered a 11,000 year old pigment mine in Mexico and what it might tell us about the people who lived there.

The names of colors are usually fanciful, but mummy brown is a surprisingly accurate description of this macabre pigment. 

This episode is all about color, and so we have two colorful photo galleries for you to dive into: Photos through the eyes of the color blind, and the 12 different kinds of rainbows defined by science.

Also explore:

Check out the pigment collection and Harvard’s Art museum. 

Read more about Mas Subramanian’s research at Oregon State University.

And for paid subscribers:

In this episode, Amy Briggs went into the Nat Geo studio to see our staff photographers hard at work photographing YInMn blue and other pigments. Take a look at our magazine feature to see the final product.

The Phonician empire was shaped by the production of Tyrion purple, a pigment with its weight in gold which was made by boiling the mucus glands of thousands of sea snails.

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to to subscribe today. 

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