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Jewish World Review Jan. 24, 2002 / 11 Shevat 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Consumer Reports

How green is my universe?

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- I ONCE had a bad sweater the color of the universe. Well, I want to be completely clear here: When I owned this piece of spun vegetable Orlon, I didn't know it was the color of the universe.

I thought it was just an awkward greeny-turquoise color, the approximate shade of a college freshman who, the night before, illegally discovered -- and gave into -- the temptations of demon rum.

But I have seen the newly discovered color of the universe on the Internet at www.pha.jhu.edu/~kgm/cosspec and there's no question that the universe and my old bad sweater -- which I eventually shot to end its painful greeny misery -- are the same color.

You may be wondering how anyone knows what color the universe is and why anyone would imagine it's only one color. Well, silly, we know all this because of the work of scientists. One of the jobs of scientists, obviously, is to tell us stuff we didn't know and didn't even imagine we could know and certainly never imagined we needed to know.

The scientists who have determined the alleged pale turquoise color of the universe are astronomers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. (The color of Baltimore, by the way, is a fading red, which is a hangover from the city's deep embarrassment at having given Spiro T. Agnew to an unsuspecting nation.)

These Johns Hopkins astronomers, Karl Glazebrook and Ivan Baldry, have done a long series of calculations and come up with the color we would see if we somehow could view all the visible light in the universe together.

The result, as I say, is off-turquoise. Which is strange. When I owned a bad sweater that color, I used to brag to people that it was a color not found in nature. But it turns out I was wrong. In fact, it's the very color of nature itself, apparently.

Now, I will give the Johns Hopkins folks this: They came up with the relatively useless color information while they were doing what they alleged to be serious work, which was using the light from thousands of galaxies to evaluate scientific theories about star formation and such.

They were looking at a survey of more than 200,000 galaxies that are 2 billion to 3 billion light years from Earth, which as you may know is a lovely bluish planet of modest repute that is the home of big, smart people who often kill each other for sport.

Glazebrook and Baldry took the visible portion of the light spectrum from all these galaxies and created a graph. I've seen it. It looks a lot like, well, a graph. You can see it on the Web site I mentioned above, too, if graphs are what move you to tears.

Eventually, however, the astronomers changed the graph into an array of colors by replacing each wavelength into the color human eyes see at that point on the spectrum. That produced a sort-of rainbow. Then they figured out how this light from the universe would look to human eyes if it weren't broken into its component parts but, rather, were the single color of a bad sweater.

Which is how they got to this sea-foamy greenish turquoise. Which seems like a lot of work for such a yucky color.

But there's hope. They say that early in the history of the universe, the color that's now pale turquoise would have been much bluer because the cosmos was dominated by young blue-colored stars.

And some day the universe will enter what the astronomers call a "red period," dominated by older, redder, dying stars. It's sad when stars die. But I'd never wear that old bad greeny sweater to a funeral for one of them.


JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.


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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved