The Beige Times issue 1, January 2002: Cosmic Latte

Beige September 20, 2018

abstract, amorphous beige image, sort of like a stain or maybe outer space, with typed text pasted on topabstract, beige, grey, and yellow drawing, possibly looks like a bruise or a face, with typed text stuck on topabstract, beige, grey, and yellow drawing, possibly looks like a bruise or a face, with typed text stuck on topCCF03022016_0007abstract, amorphous, beige drawing, possibly a galaxy, possibly a spilled drink of some kind, with typed text stuck on top

Image description: a five-part collage. An abstract, amorphous, beige image, sort of like a stain or maybe outer space, made with oil pastel and wax medium on fabric. Strips of typed text are pasted on top. Text reads:

Owing to a software error, scientists initially believed that the universe was green. It is now known that the universe is beige.

In January 2002, Ivan Baldry and Karl Glazebrook from Johns Hopkins University declared that the true colour of the universe was pale green. The scientists had used data from the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey – a survey which measures the light coming from more than 200,000 galaxies – to determine the average wavelength of light in the universe.

The scientists wanted to know what colour the universe would look like to a hypothetical outside observer who could stand in the void and gaze at the universe from afar. Unfortunately, the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey was not undertaken in the void, but rather at the Anglo-Australian Observatory in New South Wales.

The universe is expanding at an increasing rate, and the cosmic bodies within it are moving apart at increasing speeds. Your perception of light is dependent on the velocity of the light source relative to your own. When a light source is moving away from you, the wavelength of light that your eye receives will be longer than the wavelength of light that was emitted by the source. This is known as a redshift. As New South Wales is situated within the universe, and the universe is moving away from New South Wales, any measurement of universal light taken from there is redshifted.

As such, the scientists needed to de-redshift the data before they could discover the externally-viewable colour of the universe.

I read Red Shift by Alan Garner in 2002, the year I first became mad, the same year that the universe was first green, then beige. Red Shift is set in Southern Cheshire, England; its story spans nearly two thousand years. The characters – ex-soldiers of the Roman Empire, villagers caught up in the English Civil War, and two teenagers in the 1970s – echo each other across vast gaps in time. The place is like a character, its personality manifest in the words, actions and prophetic visions of its inhabitants who cannot know each other, but who continuously repeat and predict each other’s paths.

A second problem in determining the colour of the universe lay in the physiology of human vision. The human eye registers colour differently in different environmental conditions. The researchers wanted to see, from a human perspective, what the data was telling them about the universal perspective. In order to do this, they needed to further adjust the data from the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey.

Unfortunately, the software they were using had an error in it. Just weeks after announcing that the universe was green, the scientists issued a correction, saying that the true colour of the universe was a shade of beige they had named “cosmic latte.”

On Glazebrook and Baldry’s webpage, where they discuss the science behind their discovery, there is a typo: “emailed” is spelled “emailled.” Emaille is German for enamel. In 1923, László Moholy-Nagy produced a series of paintings entitled Konstruktionen in Emaille, better known as Telephone Pictures. He describes his work process:

I ordered by telephone from a sign factory five paintings in porcelain enamel. I had the factory’s color chart before me and I sketched my paintings on graph paper. At the other end of the telephone the factory supervisor had the same kind of paper, divided into squares. He took down the dictated shapes in the correct position.

Several decades later, Moholy-Nagy’s first wife stated that he’d actually ordered the pictures in person, not over the phone. There is still some disagreement regarding the truth/relevance of this claim.

Said Glazebrook, “There’s no error in the science, the error was in the perception.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s