Wacky power #17 – Sensing color by touch

Sep 5, 2009

Wacky power #17 – Sensing color by touch

Sep 5, 2009

In his most recent review of Daredevil #106, Robert of the Matt Murdock Chronicles discussed an instance of Matt talking about his color sensing ability, and a dialogue on the topic ensued in the comments. Well, in all honesty, it was mostly me giving a (very confusing) lecture. So, I thought I’d try a more pedagogical approach here. First let’s look at some instances that showcase “color sensing.”

Daredevil’s ability to determine color is one of those tricks that has gone away almost completely over time, despite being prominently featured even in the very first issue, as seen below. “I can even blend colors, for each colored fabric has a different feel to me!” You sure about that, Matt? That first costume of yours, while iconic, hardly features an impressive blend of colors…

The ability is featured again in Daredevil #60, when Matt disguises himself by wearing another man’s clothes and duplicating his hair color (courtesy of some handy chemicals he just happened to have in his pocket). “Maybe I can only feel color… not see it… But a few hip-pocket chemicals will darken my hair-color to match his!” Who knew Matt had experience as a hair dresser? 😉

The example featured in Robert’s post, from Daredevil #106 shows this confident relationship with colors substantially compromised: “Moon Dragon… I–I’m blind! I can “see” colors with my fingertips — gauge the heat they absorb — but that takes time! And if I make one wrong guess!”

The last time I can remember seeing Daredevil sense color was during Chichester’s run, in Daredevil #339. Unlike the scenes where Matt reads computer screens by touch (possibly my biggest DD pseudo-science pet peeve), the below scenario makes at least some amount of sense and of the four scenes depicted here, this one is the closest to the scientific reality I will cover at the end of the post.

The background to these panels is Ben Urich seeking out the “new” armored Daredevil. Matt faked his own death about a dozen issues earlier and he is trying to convince Ben that he is not Matt Murdock. Ben repeats the test he subjected Daredevil to when he first found out who he was:

“Make a blind man describe a photograph. It worked then. Murdock can’t afford to let it work again. Light and dark areas absorb degrees of heat from the lamp above. Enough difference to paint a crude picture for hypersensitive fingertips. Some deductive guess-work on the photos a man might carry in his wallet. All adding up to enough for a stab in the dark.”

So, why does this ability qualify for inclusion in this series of posts? Isn’t there some logic to it? There is. But for the most part, it is based on a misunderstanding. In the last few panels from Daredevil #339, Matt talks about light and dark areas absorbing degrees of heat from the lamp above, and that these are able to give him enough of a difference to discern light from dark.

Aside from the fact that he seems to be doing this with his gloves on(!), this isn’t completely nutty. The key points here being that he has access to a lamp and that he’s only talking about sensing a difference between a lighter shade and a darker shade. This is no different (in theory anyway) than what we might notice if we put two identical objects of very different colors out in the sun for a while. A darker surface absorbs more of the visible light that hits it than a lighter surface, and the absorbed energy can be felt as an increase in heat.

However, this doesn’t make it possible to specifically discern between different colors, no matter what Stan Lee says. Not only do different colors not differ in how much heat they absorb, so the implied idea that one might be able to notice a specific amount of it being absorbed when touching a material falls flat.

Colors are also not characterized by specific temperatures, the way they are characterized by different wavelengths of reflected light that our eyes can see. This means that it’s impossible to know, in isolation, what color something is just by touching it. The exact temperature of an object would depend on many different factors, and in most normal circumstances all objects in a room are at whatever the ambient temperature happens to be unless they are exposed to direct light, and the laws of thermodynamics make sure that local temperature anomalies are short-lived.

In fact, figuring out colors is so tricky that even the light-based devices that blind and color-blind people use to determine the color of an object or item of clothing are notoriously imprecise. Superhero science aside, duplicating the sensitivity and color processing ability of the human visual system is tricky business. Pretending otherwise, now that’s just wacky. 😉


  1. Robert

    I love the hair dye incident in Daredevil 60 not only because of Matt's ability to distinguish colour but to have had the forethought to carry on his person chemicals that would darken his hair to the EXACT shade of a thug (he didn't know he was going to meet). Now that's impressive forward thinking.

  2. Christine

    Well, that's Matt's other (previously undisclosed) superpower: he's psychic. This reminds me of the Swedish children's comic book character Skalman ("Shell-man"), who is a member of the supporting cast in the Bamse comic book, about the world's strongest (and kindest) bear. Skalman is always ready for anything, carrying everything from inflatable helicopters to emergency supplies inside his shell. He's the comic book version of MacGyver, except that he doesn't only use what happens to be lying around, he brings most of it himself. I suspect his shell is really a worm hole into a separate dimension. 😉

  3. Anonymous

    So, im sorry, im still confused. I said before that "maybe" he could differentiate between lights and darks based on the heat they absorb but wouldnt be able to determine colours. like he could tell between dark green and light green but not that it was actually green. So am i kinda right? any points for me, ms. science teacher?:-)

    screw it, why dont they just say hes colour-blind and leave it at that.

    I wonder if there are any actual colourblind heroes out there?

    Merzah from prague

  4. Anonymous

    its kinda like claiming you can taste the difference between different coloured M and M's.

    Merzah from Prague

  5. Christine

    Hey Merzah,

    You are sort of right. If he has two identical objects but different shades (one dark, one light) and access to a light source, he can tell which is the darker one, but not which color they are. I hope that makes sense. However, different colors don't absorb different amounts of heat. In the dark, all colors are the same temperature, and differences only become noticeable when you subject them to fairly bright light. In a normally lit room, there shouldn't be much of a difference even between light and dark. I'm sitting on a light couch and my computer is on a dark table and any temperature difference between them would be virtually non-existent.

  6. Bill

    To address the colorblind question: There was an Elektra run in the mid-90s (sorry I don't remember the writer but I think the artist was Mike Deodato) anyway they had some origin stuff about Bullseye that indicated he was colorblind. A lot of that stuff was thrown out the window with the Bullseye: Greatest Hits series. So I’m not sure he’s color blind or not…

    Anyone know?

  7. Duane Thomas

    And isn’t it interesting how, as DD is fooling Ben Urich into believing he can see, Ben never notices him running his fingertips over the photo like – well, like a blind superhero with an enhanced sense of touch trying to figure out what’s in the photo? And isn’t it interesting how Matt can detect the “areas of hotter and cooler dark and light” through the piece of plastic over the photo – and, as previously noted, through his gloves, as well? Wow, those ARE some sensitive fingertips alright.

  8. Jula

    I know someone who can sometimes sense color by touch.
    It is not a difference in temperature and it is not only a matter of light and dark.
    As she explained to me black and white can be easyly confused sometimes (depending on how sencitive she is feeling).
    She says some shades feel “full” and others fell like more “acid”. Well. Any how she cannot sence allways. It depends on her state of mind or emotional state I dont know. But when she is certain about a color she definnetly gets it.



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