My daughter did a school project in which we placed a thermometer inside cloths …

My daughter did a school project in which we placed a thermometer inside cloths of various colors. Black cloth showed the highest temperature, blue next, then red, and finally white. Why is that?

Since light carries energy with it, a cloth that absorbs light also absorbs energy. In most cases, this absorbed energy becomes thermal energy in the cloth. Because of this extra thermal energy, the cloth’s temperature rises and it begins to transfer the thermal energy to its surroundings as heat. Its temperature stops rising when the thermal energy it receives from the light is exactly equal to the thermal energy it transfers to its surroundings as heat. This final temperature depends on how much light it absorbs—if it absorbs lots of light, then it will reach a high temperature before the balance of energy flow sets in.

A cloth’s color is determined by how it absorbs and emits light. Black cloth absorbs essentially all light that hits it, which is why its temperature rises so much. White cloth absorbs virtually no light, which is why it remains cool. Colored cloths fall somewhere in between black and white. Blue cloth absorbs light in the green and red portions of the spectrum while reflecting the blue portion. Red cloth absorbs light in the blue and green portions of the spectrum while reflecting the red portion. Since most light sources put more energy in the red portion of the spectrum than in the blue portion of the spectrum, the blue cloth absorbs more energy than the red cloth. So the sequence of temperatures you observed is the one you should expect to observe.

One final note: most light sources also emit invisible infrared light, which also carries energy. Most of the light from an incandescent lamp is infrared. You can’t tell by looking at a piece of cloth how much infrared light it absorbs and how much it reflects. Nonetheless, infrared light affects the cloth’s temperature. A piece of white cloth that absorbs infrared light may become surprisingly hot and a piece of black cloth that reflects infrared light may not become as hot as you would expect.