Writing my way through the A-to-Z blogging challenge, I’ve tasked myself with throwing open the cabinet of curiosities and wondrous things I call my brain and leading you on a tour of what actually resides in there – all through the lens of unusual, obscure, or simply charming-to-me words.
X is for…
xanthometer – instrument for measuring color of sea or lake water
I always look forward to “X” day in the A-to-Z challenge to see what topic folks come up with. It’s certainly not an easy letter. But I’m as much in love with the concept of a xanthometer as I am with having a fun word to share.
I first saw a xanthometer years ago in some museum, perhaps at the Smithsonian although I can’t swear to it. Something about it immediately sparked my artist sensibilities, and I’ve thought about that apparatus many times over the years.
A xanthometer is a type of chromometer, which is a more generalized term for any instrument that compares the color of something with a reference standard. A xanthometer is a graduated scale of colors from blue to yellow, white, or green, used to determine the color of ocean or lake water. Historically there were a few well-known scales, including Forel’s which ranged from blue to olive; a modification by O. Krümmel which was created for use on a plankton expedition in 1890, and the scale of W. Ule which extended the scale to 21 numbers distinguishing the various colors.
The particular apparatus I saw was a Forel’s. I’ve searched extensively online for a photo to share, but can’t find one. So let me describe it and see if you can picture it. Imagine a series of sealed glass tubes fixed like rungs in a ladder-like frame, with the ladder being held on the horizontal. Each glass tube is filled with a mixture of blue and yellow liquids in varying proportions, so the range of tubes creates a scale of colors. In the particular model I saw, the tubes were secured at one end by a mechanism that could be released, and when this was done, the tubes would hang free like they were dangling, although still attached to the upper frame of the “horizontal ladder. This made the tubes available to hold over (or dip into) the body of water so an accurate color match could be made. After that was done, the tubes would be locked back into place at the bottom of the frame, for the purpose of stabilizing them so they wouldn’t break in transport.
Basically the color of the waters is due to the absorption and scattering of light. If there are particles suspended in the water, they increase the scattering of light. Along coastlines, runoff from rivers, suspension of silt and sand by tides, waves, and storms, and various other things can change the color of near-shore waters.
But the most important light-absorbing substance in the oceans is chlorophyll, indicating the presence of phytoplankton.
These days the study of ocean color is a research discipline using radiometry, and observations are often made via satellite. The measurements are used to figure out important info such as phytoplankton biomass; concentrations of other living and non-living material; and are providing critical information on how climate change is affecting our world.
Over 70% of the Earth is covered by water, and we humans ourselves are composed of at least 60% water. Water is vital to all of us – we’re watery creatures on a watery planet, but we’re not doing a very good job of protecting our resource or distributing it fairly.
If asked to choose my favorite body of water, I think I’d pick the Pacific Ocean, particularly near Big Sur in California. But locally, I love Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes, and nothing delights me more than watching the waves. When I was in graduate school I lived near enough to it that I could observe daily color changes and was truly delightful. My brother has a home on a river and I love that as well. I literally feel myself dial down several notches when I’m by the river. And of course my most commonly-loved body of water is in my bath tub. Liquid alchemy at the turn of a faucet.
But whenever I think of water, I also think of a broader issue. How we’re all part of something bigger. Years ago, a friend, who was a member of a number of ecopsychology groups, really encouraged everyone to think of themselves in relationship to the watershed they belong to. That thinking changed everything for me. Here’s a simple-to-understand definition: “A watershed describes an area of land that contains a common set of streams and rivers that all drain into a single larger body of water, such as a larger river, a lake or an ocean.”
At the urging of my friend we began identifying ourselves with the description of our watershed. And so I am Deborah, of the DesPlaines River – Kankakee River – Illinois River – Mississippi River – Gulf of Mexico.
While today’s word xanthometer has me thinking of water, it also keeps me thinking about color. I’ve been keeping a color journal as part of a project I’m working on. It’s evolved in all manner of unexpected ways from what I originally envisioned, and that’s not a bad thing. But it’s also made me realize how important color is to me in ways I hadn’t quite realized before. The world is a colorful place, and I think we should live lives that reflect that as well.
I have to agree with Oscar Wilde: “Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.”
So tell me – do you think you’re living a colorful life? What’s your favorite body of water? Know your watershed? Love one color above all others? Do tell – you know I love to hear.