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Some facts about the color yellow

The color yellow is one of the more perplexing hues on the color wheel. Humans perceive the color as both energetic and aggressive as well as warm and frustrating. Some cultures consider it a symbol of power and good fortune, while others conflate the color with weakness (“yellow-bellied”) or manipulation (“yellow journalism”). These six facts explore the ins and outs of the tone and all the various ways it fills our everyday lives.

Smiley face creator made only $45

The bright-yellow smiley face is a symbol baked into the fabric of the digital age, providing the foundation for the emoji that have become the techno-hieroglyphics of modern life. But that very first exaggerated face had to come from somewhere — and that somewhere was Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1963, the State Mutual Life Assurance Company reached out to graphic designer Harvey Ball to create a symbol to help boost company morale. “I made a circle with a smile for a mouth on yellow paper, because it was sunshiny and bright,” Ball later told the Associated Press. For 10 minutes of work, he received $45 — not a bad rate, but not exactly commensurate with the $500 million business that yellow-hued grin inspired.

Huangdi was known as China’s Yellow Emperor

Although purple is often associated with emperors, kings, and queens throughout European history, yellow is the color of royalty in ancient China. This has to do in large part with the country’s quasi-mythological emperor Huangdi, who supposedly ruled around the 27th century BCE. It’s traditionally believed that Huangdi (huang means “yellow” in Chinese) introduced wooden houses and the bow and arrow, and defended China against bands of marauding barbarians. For these (supposed) efforts, Huangdi now stands as a legendary figure and mythical progenitor of the Han Chinese people. Although the historicity of Huangdi has been called into question by historians in the 20th century (CE, that is), his story has exalted the color yellow in Chinese culture as a hue that embodies royalty, power, and good fortune.

The sun isn’t actually yellow

Many kindergarten drawings magnetized to fridges around the world feature a big yellow sun with bright rays shooting in all directions. But is the sun actually yellow? How our eyes perceive the sun’s color relies on a variety of things, including the light’s intensity, environmental factors, and the limitations of human biology. Because Earth’s atmosphere is so effective at reflecting blue light, the light that eventually reaches our eyes has a slight yellow tint to it. When the sun is closer to the horizon at sunset, the sun’s light passes through even more of Earth’s atmosphere, thus scattering even more blue light, which makes our host star a warmer, reddish hue. But when astronauts escape the confines of Earth’s atmosphere, the sun they see is completely white, as the star basically emits across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from radio to gamma waves. According to NASA, however, the sun emits most of its energy at around 500 nanometers in the visible spectrum. This means the sun is technically blue-green, but the physical limitations of our eyes prevent us from perceiving it.

We are biologically wired to see school bus-yellow

Parked outside schools across the U.S. are bright-yellow school buses, and that subtle color assault on your eyes is by design. In 1939, school transportation officials met at Columbia University to standardize buses in an effort to make them both safer and cheaper to mass-produce. During this meeting, 50 shades of yellowish orange were pinned to the wall, with Color 13432 — known today as National School Bus Glossy Yellow — eventually emerging as the winner. Humans are trichromatic, meaning our eyes have three types of photoreceptor cells (red, blue, and green), and as a wavelength, school bus yellow is at the peakwhere two of our three photoreceptors (red and green) are equally stimulated — so it essentially sends double the transmissions to the brain.

Maybe avoid yellow on a first date

While yellow is beloved by some cultures, school transportation boards, and certain springtime pollinators, the color scores low marks when it comes to fashion. According to a 2010 study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, yellow ranks among the lowest for both men and women when it comes to a “mean attractiveness score.” Conversely, the highest-scoring colors among both sexes were red and black.

Additionally, an unrelated survey held in 2013by a U.K. online retailer asked around 2,500 adults about the attractiveness of certain clothing colors, and yellow again scored low marks. To add insult to injury, yet anothersurvey found the color yellow inspired the least amount of confidence (along with orange and brown).

However, some of these preferences may be regional. A 2019 study surveyed 6,000 people across 55 countries about their feelings for yellow in general, and found that preferences for yellow increased in areas with rainy weather far from the equator. This is likely because the color yellow is more closely associated with warm, sunny weather, which is rarer the farther you move away from the globe’s middle.

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