Show Me The Monet

Fact: Monet could see ultra-violet light.

Sometimes the most talented among us seem like superheroes, but in the case of Claude Monet there was actually a ‘superpower’ at work: he could see what is invisible to the rest of us.

In fact, all humans have the capability to see UV light. Cells in our eyes respond to either red, green or blue light, but they can also weakly detect light with similar wavelengths to these colours, such as infra-red or ultra-violet light. However, the lenses of the eye (through which you focus light to see a sharp image) act like a pair of sunglasses, screening out UV light before it reaches those cells.

Monet developed cataracts in his old age, a condition where the lens of your eye becomes clouded and impairs your vision. He had the lens of is left eye removed, which removed the clouding obstructing his vision but also prevented him for focusing on anything. It also removed this screening effect, allowing him a glimpse of what the  world looks like in UV. The effects can be seen in his later paintings: after the operation his paintings become significantly bluer, likely reflecting his experience of being able to see further in that end of the light spectrum.

Monet’s ‘superpower’ sounds incredible, but it is far from unique. Many animals can naturally see ultra-violet light: some male butterflies, for example, have ultra-violet colours on their wings that are invisible to humans but attract female butterflies.

‘Another one of Mr Shaunak’s Little Bites of Science’
Image under Creative Commons License

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