What Causes Color?

Of course, I know the simple explanation that certain wavelengths of light are absorbed, others are reflected, and that is what we see.

What I’m asking, however, is: What is it about the surface of the object that causes this absorption/reflection? Is this understood from a physics point of view? If I had no perception of color, would I be able to look at a surface, say, through an electron microscope (or other device, if necessary) and, simply based on the “molecular structure” of the object, or whatever may be appropriate, conclude, “Well, obviously, since the surface is shaped this or that way at the atomic level, the surface will absorb x wavelength of light, and reflect y wavelength”?

Theoretically, yes. Practically, no. The reflection and absorption of different wavelengths is largely a function of the electron fields of the atoms at the surface of the object begin viewed. If you knew the properties of those fields and were really good at calculations, you could deduce the color. You won’t see those fields through an electron microscope, however (think about it).

You could calculate the properties of the fields themselves using quantum mechanics and knowledge of fundamental constants, etc., but the problem is already so difficult that it can’t really be worked.

In addition, the measured properties that you would use to make your calculations will have been derived from experiments that involve interactions with those fields with light or some other form of electromagnetic radiation. So it gets into circular reasoning pretty quickly.

Instead, we have this marvelous set of devices in the front of our heads that answer the question automatically just by pointing them at the object. Let’s hear it for eyes!

“If ignorance were corn flakes, you’d be General Mills.”
Cecil Adams
The Straight Dope

Basically, if light is absorbed that means that that wavelength of light had enough energy to knock an electron into a higher orbit. Glass is transparent because the wavelengths of light we see are not powerful enough to knock the electrons into a higher orbit.

But as pluto said, the calculations would pretty difficult. But I guess some simpler things could be modeled on a computer. Crystals would probably be easy because they’re so regular.