CHEMystery …or Chemistry of Colours

Ever since I was a child, I have been enamoured with Colours. Be it the diverse hues in nature, or colourful clothes and jewellery, or even the colours of different food items. I used to be known (and sometimes made fun of) for colour coordinating clothes and jewellery, to the level of obsession.

It was no wonder then, that this fascination for colour drew me towards Chemistry in college. I was never very good at the subject per se, but was always interested in the colourful experiments we conducted in the lab. Whether it was the exact end point in a titration or the flame tests during salt analysis, I would stand enraptured only because of the colour. Not that I realised this at the time, however the seed was sown.

As I started studying advanced chemistry during my Masters, it was clear to me that I wanted to specialise in Coordination Chemistry. Only when I was asked why, during a committee interview, did it dawn on me that it was because of colours. Because you see, Co-ordination Chemistry is the field that deals with metals exhibiting variable oxidation states that give rise to most of the colourful materials we see around us.

Whether it is the pigments in living organisms or the pigments in paints, the colourful dyes in textiles or the colourful powders used in Rangoli, everything colourful can be traced back to one of these 30-odd elements on the periodic table. And, I specialised in that field, all throughout my pursuit in advanced Chemistry. I agree my specialisation was quite narrow, to be honest, only one among these 30-odd elements, but the fascination only grew, never subsided. The reason was that now, not only could I appreciate the colours visible to the naked eyes, I could also marvel at the magical interactions at the molecular levels that made these colours happen.

If one is inclined to think that this experience is limited to students of Chemistry, there’s nothing farther than the truth. If any of you have burst crackers during Deepavali (all of you, right?), you have all conducted Chemistry experiments. Firecrackers are one of the more spectacular applications of Chemistry. When I was a child, the crackers had more sound than colours and I was always averse to loud sound. However, during my University days in Michigan, I have witnessed some beautiful and colourful fireworks displays during 4th of July celebrations. In fact, one of my fondest memories is of watching the fireworks on the banks of Lake Superior. Sitting on the beach with friends, my point and shoot camera on a tripod, set to manual mode, marvelling at the fireworks, and at the same time capturing them on camera – certainly one of my life’s Kodak moments.



If there’s anything my journey has taught me, it is that no matter how far or how high you go in your pursuit of knowledge, the one thing that cannot be shaken off is the wonderment one feels at the marvels of nature, no matter how commonplace they may seem. That is the only reason why I can still squeal like a child (either literally or in my mind – depending on whom I am with), at every experiment I conduct or witness, which involves colours.

I will leave you with the following quote of one of my favourite Physicists – Richard Feynman:

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimetre; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colours in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the colour. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the Mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

-Dr. Soumyashree S., Co-Founder, President-Research & Development  BRAINSTARS

Link to one of our calendars which was based on Fire Crackers :

Image Courtesy




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