The Color Of The Universe Is Constantly Changing

By Debra Kelly on Thursday, March 20, 2014
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“Every notion that any man, dead, living, or unborn, might form as to the universe will necessarily prove wrong.” —James Branch Cabell, The Cream of the Jest

In A Nutshell

A couple of scientists at Johns Hopkins were curious about the color of the universe, so they decided to try to figure it out. After measuring the light given off from 200,000 different galaxies and blending the samples together, they found that it’s a rather boring shade of beige (shown in the first link below). More than that, however, the colors of the universe have told them just what’s happening to stars. The colors that it’s been and that it’s becoming have shown the increasing maturity of the galaxy.

The Whole Bushel

It’s probably not a question you’ve ever thought about, but think about it now. What color is the universe?

A right answer might seem like black; it’s the color of space when we look at it, and it’s a common enough color even here on Earth. If not that, then white, perhaps?

Scientists have determined the actual color of the universe, and it’s a sort of beige you might find in a doctor’s waiting room.

The conclusion was made by a pair of British astrophysicists at Johns Hopkins University. They took light samples from 200,000 different galaxies and plugged the data into a computer program that would create a single composite color based on what it saw. It took all of the different colors that are emitted on the spectrum of colors that humans can see and blended them together. Even with all the amazing photos we’ve all seen of distant galaxies, nebulae, stars and planets, the color of the universe is, in the end, a pretty boring beige.

Their first try, they got a completely different—and much more interesting—color. Their original findings suggested that the color was actually a sort of pale turquoise, but revisiting the data showed errors in calculations. The first computer program that was used was basing all of its colors on a strange, non-pure shade of white. Once that was calibrated to what the human eye actually sees, the universe got a lot more dull.

In its more pure form, the color is very, very close to white. But they wanted to know what humans would see if they could see the pure color of the universe, so they factored in the most normal lighting conditions that we’d view it in—under light bulbs. That gave it a slightly blue tint, making the final result beige.

But that blue color that they originally found wasn’t entirely inaccurate, as the universe hasn’t always been the same color. The universe, and everything in it, is always in a state of change. The astrophysicists determined that while we’re in something of a boring beige phase right now, the universe was once closer to what their original findings were—blue. Now, more and more stars are getting redder and redder, making them guess that eventually the color of the universe is going to change and shift farther along on the red scale.

By looking at the different colors present in the spectrum of colors given off by the universe, they can tell a lot about how stars have formed and will form, along with what’s happening in the universe today; it’s even allowed them to graph star formation over the ages of the universe.

With more stars growing redder, that means there are more mature stars and a lack of material for the formation of new ones. It’s thought that all these stars will eventually disappear to leave behind black holes. As the universe expands, the redder the color of it will become. But for now, it’s a blandly colored universe.

Once they determined the color, they held a contest to name the color of the universe. The winner?

Cosmic latte.

Show Me The Proof

Astronomy Picture of the Day: Cosmic Latte
The Cosmic Spectrum and the Color of the Universe, by Karl Glazebrook & Ivan Baldry
Telegraph: The universe is beige