Logarithmic spiral, nautilus, and rainbow

The other day I stumbled into an interesting article on The Guardian online: The medieval bishop who helped to unweave the rainbow. In the article I learned for the first time of Robert Grosseteste, a 13th century British scholar (with an interesting Italian last name: Grosse teste = big heads) who was also the Bishop of Lincoln.

The Bishops’ interests and investigations covered diverse topics, making him a pre-renaissance polymath; however, it is his 1225 treatise on colour, the De Colore, that is receiving much attention.

In a recent commentary on Nature Physics (All the colours of the rainbow), and reference therein (A three-dimensional color space from the 13th century),  Smithson et al. (who also recently published a new critical edition/translation of the treatise with analysis and critical commentaries) analyze the 3D colorspace devised by Grosseteste, who claimed it allows the generation of all possible colours and to describe the variations of colours among different rainbows.

As we learn from Smithson et al., Grosseteste’s colorpsace had three dimensions, quantified by physical properties of the incident light and the medium: these are the scattering angle (which produces variation of hue within a rainbow), the purity of the scattering medium (which produces variation between different rainbows and is linked to the size of the water droplets in the rainbow), and the altitude of the sun (which produces variation in the light incident on a rainbow). The authors were able to model this colorspace and also to show that the locus of rainbow colours generated in that colorspace forms a spiral surface (a family of spiral curves, each form a specific rainbow) in  the perceptual CIELab colorspace.

I found this not only fascinating – a three-dimensional, perceptual colorspace from the 13th century!! – but also a source of renewed interest in creating the perfect perceptual colormaps by spiralling through CIELab.

My first attempt of colormap spiralling in CIELab, CubicYF, came to life by selecting hand-picked colours on CIELab colour charts at fixed lightness values (found in this document by Gernot Hoffmann). The process was described in this post, and you can see an animation of the spiral curve in CIELab space (created with the 3D color inspector plugin in ImageJ) in the video below:

Some time later, after reading this post by Rob Simmon (in particular the section on the NASA Ames Color Tool), and after an email exchange with Rob, I started tinkering with the idea of creating perceptual rainbow colormaps in CIELab programmatically, by using a helix curve or an Archimedean spiral, but reading Smithson et al. got me to try the logarithmic spiral.

So I started my experiments with a warm-up and tried to replicate a Nautilus using a logarithmic spiral with a growth ratio equal to 0.1759. You may have read that the rate at which a Nautilus shell grows can be described by the golden ratio phi, but in fact the golden spiral constructed from a golden rectangle is not a Nautilus Spiral (as an aside, as I was playing with the code I recalled reading some time ago Golden spiral, a nice blog post (with lots of code) by Cleve Moler, creator of the first version of Matlab,  who simulated a golden spiral using a continuously expanding sequence of golden rectangles and inscribed quarter circles).

My nautilus-like spiral, plotted in Figure 1, has a growth ratio of 0.1759 instead of the golden ratio of 1.618.

nautilus logarithmic spiral with growth ratio = 0.1759

Figure 1: nautilus-like spiral with growth ratio = 0.1759

And here’s the colormap (I called it logspiral) I came up with after a couple of hours of hacking: as hue cycles from 360 to 90 degrees, chroma spirals outwardly (I used a logarithmic spiral with polar equation c1*exp(c2*h) with a growth ratio c2 of 0.3 and a constant c1 of 20), and lightness increases linearly from 30 to 90.

Figure 2 shows the trajectory in the 2D CIELab a-b plane; the colours shown are the final RGB colours. In Figure 3 the trajectory is shown in 3D CIELab space. The coloured lightness profiles were made using the Colormapline submission from the Matlab File Exchange.

2D logspiral colormap in CIELab a-b plane

Figure 2: logspiral colormap trajectory in CIELab a-b plane

logspiral colormap trajectory in CIELab 3D space

Figure 3: logspiral colormap in CIELab 3D space


N.B. In creating logspiral, I was inspired by Figure 2 in the Nature Physics paper, but there are important differences in terms of colorspace, lightness profile and perception: I am not certain their polar coordinates are equivalent to Lightness, Chroma, and Hue, although they could; and, more importantly, the three-dimensional spirals based on Grosseteste’s colorpsace go from low lightness at low scattering angles to much higher values at mid scattering angles, and then drop again at high scattering angle (remember that these spirals describe real world rainbows), whereas lightness in logspiral lightness is strictly monotonically increasing.

In my next post I will share the Matlab code to generate a full set of logspiral colormaps sweeping the hue circle from different staring colours (and end colors) and also the slower-growing logarithmic spirals to make a set of monochromatic colormaps (similar to those in Figure 2 in the Nature Physics paper).


2 responses to “Logarithmic spiral, nautilus, and rainbow

  1. Great post, looking forward to the follow-up. Very interesting approach. For a colormap you probably want the distance between colors in the a&b plane to be equal, so i think you need to sample more as you move further away from the center of the spiral? It would also be nice to see if lightness still increases monotonically if you convert forward to RGB and back again to lab. Since the spiral, in lab colorspace, might intersect with parts not available in RGB colorspace. Assuming you would eventually want RGB colors for mapping.

    • Hi Rutger

      Thanks for your positive feedback and comments/questions.
      One quick answer about your last point: the colours shown in the last two figures are the final RGB colours. I updated the post to state this more clearly. But it would be nice to show the results of taking the values around for an HCL->LAB->RGB->LAB round trip (I’ve done HCL->LAB->RGB, I wil ltest the last leg of the tirp).
      I will try that and discuss my findings in a further post, together with your other points, so stay tuned!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s