Average Colors of the Universe is a morning wake-up call

Average Colors of the Universe is a morning wake-up call

If you combine all the colors in the universe in proportion to how they are produced, you get white-beige. Realizing that sounded a bit depressing, astronomers conducted a poll of suggested names that would give the universe the PR boost it needed. Most suggestions focused on the similarity to café au lait and the Cappuccino Cosmico was the in-house choice. However, those who did make the identification withdrew their rank, choosing Cosmic Latte instead, though the full story has a few additional twists.

Around the year 2000, Dr. Carl Glazebrook, then working at Johns Hopkins University, began a project to determine the average color of the universe. In the prevailing darkness, the stars shine in many shades. Astronomers make great use of these colors, for example, to determine the age and size of individual stars.

Mid-tones are also surprisingly important. Galaxies filled with bright, hot stars have a blue tinge. Although such stars may represent only a small percentage of the galaxy’s population, they emit so much light that a few of them can outshine the red and yellow majority.

However, where star formation has long ceased, red stars dominate, creating a distinctive middle shadow that indicates a galaxy in decline. It is much easier to create such averages for galaxies that fit within a single field of view of a telescope rather than something we are inside. Glazebrook’s team was one of those trying to find the average color of the Milky Way to determine how our galaxy compares to other galaxies we can see.

As a side project to determine whether we live inside a “red dead” galaxy, or a green galaxy undergoing a blue-to-red transition, Glazebrook and his colleagues decided to remain more ambitious. By averaging data for 200,000 galaxies, they hoped to measure the color of the universe as a whole.

Their initial announcement put the entire universe in turquoise or greenish-white, not unlike some estimates of our galaxy’s shadow. On a planet where green is the color of the life-giving process of photosynthesis, this sounded attractive and received some positive coverage.

However, less than a year later, the team admitted that an error had occurred in the computer program they relied on, describing themselves as true scientists in admitting their error. The actual shade was closer to white, with a touch of brown (#FFF8E7), they admitted, at least before it turned red. Just a decade after a game show deducted points from contestants for wearing beige, Glazebrook expressed a desire to refer to the color under a more positive name.

Suggestions were sought — always a risky move — and Johns Hopkins researchers voted from among the options presented. There was strong support for Big Bang Buff, but Cappuccino Cosmico received the most votes (the university only asked for people’s first choice, rather than adopting a preferential voting system that would have determined the opinions of a majority of the faculty).

Proving that astronomy is not a democracy (regardless of Pluto’s case), the paper’s authors rejected the survey results and chose Cosmic Latte, a name that has stuck ever since — even being adopted by the makers of lesbian and gay dating sites. Officially, they were attracted by the fact that Italian, in which latte means milk, was Galileo’s native language. However, Glazebrook has since become a professor at Swinburne University, in the heart of the city that made quality latte bars a part of it. Of his identity, so there could be other explanations.

Twenty years later, the research is still there, but the color system is very human-centered, not some eternal truth. Aliens may not be able to see in the electromagnetic spectrum at all, but that’s unlikely, given how wonderfully useful sight is, and how often it has evolved on Earth. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that they would prefer the same part of the spectrum that we do. Science fiction movies rarely mention it, but it is very likely that the first extraterrestrial intelligent beings we encounter will detect what we consider to be ultraviolet radiation, like bees, or infrared radiation, like some snakes. If so, they may favor the average color.

We hope they still love coffee.

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