Montana State University

Astronomer sees the light after spider invades car

July 3, 2007 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Bill Livingston has been fascinated by the color he sees in spider webs ever since a garden spider spun a web in his car. (Photo by Bill Livingston).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- It was almost a religious experience, the first time he noticed color in a spider web, Bill Livingston said at Montana State University during the ninth international meeting on Light and Color in Nature.

"My big revelation came in the ordinary garden spider that got into my car and spun this really beautiful web there in the front seat. That was an ideal circumstance because to see these patterns best, you need light and you also need darkness," said Livingston, a retired solar astronomer from Arizona.

The light, in his case came from the sun that shone through his car windows on Oct. 11, 1984, Livingston said. The darkness came from the inside and floor of his car, providing the contrast he needed to see the web and the colors it refracted from the sun.

The realization that he could see color in spider webs hadn't occurred to him before that, Livingston said. Since then, he has photographed spider webs in Indonesia and India and learned a few lessons along the way. One, for example, is that he takes his best pictures by moving in close to the subject.

"That means really close," Livingston said. "And you know, the spider is sitting there. In some parts of the world, spiders get pretty big."

Livingston also learned that the color he sees doesn't come from colored webs, but from sunlight that bends when it hits dew, rain or the sticky substance that spiders spread around the web to trap their prey. He realized that out-of-focus viewing helps him see colors. He discovered that dew stays around a lot longer on spider webs in India than Arizona; humidity is the key.

His spider web odyssey made him realize that people often see things, but they don't know they're seeing a phenomenon unless someone tells them, Livingston continued.

"Sometimes we don't see things, because we haven't heard about them," Livingston said.

The June 25-29 conference focused on those and other phenomena in nature. Joe Shaw, conference organizer and director of MSU's Optical Technology Center, showed photographs he had taken late at night of auroras over Bozeman. David Lynch, senior scientist at The Aerospace Corporation and president of Thule Scientific in Los Angeles, showed pictures of brush fires in California. He explained how the smoke can appear white or reddish-brown, depending on the angle people are looking. Other speakers discussed such things as eclipses, halos, rainbows and snow flakes.

Lynch organized the first Light and Color in Nature conference in 1978 and said the topic is a sideline for him and the other scientists who attend.

"We do it for the love of science," said Lynch, an astronomer who wrote a book with Livingston on color and light in nature. In his work life, Lynch focuses on novas, comets and young stars instead of brush fires. He uses infrared spectroscopy to look at the spectrum of stars and galaxies.

Approximately 45 scientists from the United States, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, England and Spain attended the conference on the MSU campus.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or