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cosmic latte: color of the universe

In 2001, a team of British astronomers from Johns Hopkins University, Karl Glazebrook and Ivan Baldry were gathering spectral analysis data of young galaxies for their star formation study.

They were hoping to use this information for accurately identifying the ages of galaxies across the universe.

Glazebrook and Baldry ultimately collected spectral analysis data from 200,000 different galaxies (please repeat that once again — 200,000 galaxies!) which allowed them to determine that the majority of the stars in the universe fully formed around 5 billion years ago.

The data came from the Australian 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey at the Anglo-Australian Observatory in New South Wales, Australia.

Okay, as astonishing as that star age information does sound, here’s another “side effect” of this particular scientific research —the average color of (the light) of the universe.

In the past, even way before 5 billion years ago, those formed stars would have appeared brighter and bluer. They were young, baby blue stars.

But as stars age, they shift from blue to yellow and eventually red. Thanks to these aging stars, the color of the universe have gradually shifted over time from a blueish to a reddish hue.

If you were to put the whole universe in a box so that you could see all its light smeared and at once, the average of all the colors you’d be able to perceive with your human eye would look like…well, mellow beige. Or to be exact, #FFF8E7in HEX value.

Boring beige?

But don’t let this rather bland color fool you. If we were to take the same light, but instead of looking at it all at once (which gave us the average beige), let’s say — put it through a prism, it would produce a rainbow of nearly all of the colors we see here on Earth, from deep violet to ruby red.

Prisms work by separating the visible light into the different colors of the electromagnetic spectrum, resulting in the characteristic rainbow of colors. A prism separating all the visible light from the universe would give us a slightly different spectrum than the one we’re used to.

“I don’t like being wrong”

This shade of beige wasn’t the researchers’ first decision, tbh. It was a correction they issued after unintentionally identifying the universe’s color as a turquoise green in 2001.

Glazebrook said that the true color the research data has given was closer to beige, not green-blue. I’m very embarrassed,” he said, “I don’t like being wrong.”The mistake was caused by a bug in the software Glazebrook had used to convert the cosmic spectrum into the color the human eye would see if it was exposed to it. “There’s no error in the science, the error was in the perception,” Glazebrook said.

The beige-ish color of the universe that we’re left with is due to how light from distant stars appears here on Earth.

As the galaxies emit light, it has to travel billions of light-years before we can see it here from our little blue dot. These light waves tend towards pure white on the spectrum. This color is due to the fact that Earth citizens are currently seeing the light from the stars’ “youthful” years, from when they were new and blue.

Cosmic Latte

Once Glazebrook and Baldry had come across the color, they wanted to officially name it. The color was published alongside the news about the research in the various newspapers. Washington Post was one of them and Glazebrook jokingly mentioned that they were accepting suggestions for a name for the new shade.

Many people actually took him up on that, and some cool and creative names were sent (Astronomer Almond, Big Bang Beige, Skyvory, Cosmic Khaki, Primordial Clam Chowder). Peter Drum submitted two names, Cosmic Latte and Cappuccino Cosmico.

Fun fact: Drum came up with the idea while sitting in a Starbucks, drinking a latte and reading the Post. The color from the picture matched the color of his perfect (cosmic) latte. And that was it.

All of the Johns Hopkins University astronomers voted on their favorite, but Cosmic Latte wasn’t even close to winning the vote (only 6 votes). Drum’s other suggestion, Cappuccino Cosmico won overwhelmingly with 17 votes.

However, Glazebrook and Baldry preferred the Cosmic Latte, that cute milky title, associated with latteo, milky in Italian, Galileo’s native language. It also leads to the similarity to the Italian term for the Milky Way, Via Lattea, and they enjoyed the fact that the color would be similar to the Milky Way’s average color as well, as it is part of the sum of the universe.

Cosmic Latte it is.

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