An infinity of blandness

Good news! It appears that the universe, in a sort of incandescent ecru, might match your drapes.

Science & Technology

March 17, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

All this silliness with color chips and color names is not exactly what Johns Hopkins University astronomers Ivan Baldry and Karl Glazebrook had in mind. But perhaps they should have figured on stirring response when they announced that the universe itself, the unfathomably vast collective of galaxies, black holes and cosmic expanses in between, is roughly the color of Coffeemate.

Exactly what to call that color is another matter, a question the two scientists are not necessarily trained nor inclined to engage.

Suggestions have been pouring in: "banana cream smoothie," "big bang beige," "galactic khaki."

Who knew it would come to this?

Baldry and Glazebrook are now up to their eyes in e-mails answering their request for color names, suggesting further research on the laws of unintended consequences. The whole thing was an afterthought.

"Cosmic eggshell"? "French vanilla"?

A little background: At the January meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, the two men reported on work they'd been doing on star formation. Seems they'd been measuring light emanating from galaxies, calculating the energy and the color of the light to arrive at relative values to be compiled into a "cosmic spectrum." The spectrum can then be used to understand the rate of star formation, as older and younger stars produce different light.

Nice idea, no?

And, oh, by the way, the astronomers said: The universe as a collective entity can be said to emit a certain color. That is, if you could step back from the universe to "see" it. If you could do that, the color would be a sort of turquoise.

The story of the turquoise universe took off, swallowing the central point of the research like a black hole. Trouble is, the color was off. The scientists erred in the delicate calculation of how a human eye would "see" the universe, a strictly theoretical matter, of course. Only God could do that, and who knows how her eyes work.

The glitch appeared in the value given to the white "illumination," or the adaptation of the human eye to different light. The error threw the color of the universe too far toward blue / green.

So earlier this month, the two Australians came clean. Baldry and Glazebrook confessed their error and announced that the more accurate "white point" value reveals the universe as a warmish off-white.

"Star ivory," perhaps? "Nude"?

The universe, it turned out, collectively blazed with all the dazzle of a sheet of newsprint, a couch you bought at IKEA 'cause it matches everything, the drab drapes at a Motel 6.

They never actually called it "beige," says Baldry.

"We said we're open to suggestions" for the color name, he says, "as long as it isn't beige."

Technically, the color is "illumination E gamma," but that packs little poetic punch. They're sifting through the suggestions -- about 300 so far; please, no more calls -- for something suitable.

"It was just a bit of fun to suggest a name," says Baldry. So far, he says, Glazebrook's personal favorite is "cosmic latte." Baldry is partial to "astronomical almond" and "unibeige," although he wonders if the latter perhaps "sounds a bit boring."

Someone suggested calling the color "Baldryglaze," but Baldry says "No, I don't think we've quite got the ego going" for that.

After all, it did take them a couple tries to get the color of the universe right.

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