AAS 200th meeting, Albuquerque, NM, June 2002
Session 81. Astronomy Education and Public Outreach
Oral, Thursday, June 6, 2002, 10:00-11:30am, Mesilla

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[81.01] Color in Astronomy

K. Brecher (Boston U.)

The vocabulary of astronomy is riddled with color terms. Stars are referred to as red or blue - even brown – though rarely green. Astronomers say light from a star can be "blueshifted" or that it can be "reddened". Color, however, is not a simple one-dimensional physical parameter equal to wavelength or frequency. It is a complex, psychophysical phenomenon involving at least three degrees of freedom - hue, saturation and brightness – as well as observational context. Nonetheless, many astronomers treat hue alone or hue plus saturation as the same thing as color. A recent report on "the color of the universe" is a case in point (Baldry and Glazebrook, Bull. Am. As. Soc., 34, No. 1, 571, 2002). Even discounting the authors’ initial and (possibly) subsequent errors in arriving at a "color" associated with the composite spectrum derived from the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey (first reported as "pale turquoise", then "beige"), the method of viewing the light was left vague, and context is important. For example, consider the question "What color is the Moon?" When viewed from Earth, the Moon appears white against the black sky. Place a piece of "average" lunar material in a lighted room, and it will appear dark gray. To most human observers, the 2000 or so naked eye stars observable from the northern hemisphere all appear white, with the few exceptions which look reddish/orange such as Betelgeuse, Arcturus, Aldeberan, Antares and Pollux. Yet the dimmer double star companion to Alberio can appear bluish when viewed beside its much brighter yellowish/orange neighbor if both are viewed by eye through a small aperture, slightly defocused telescope. This presentation will explore several visual phenomena that can help clarify the concept of color in astronomy.

Supported in part by NSF grant # DUE-9950551 for "Project LITE: Light Inquiry Through Experiments".

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Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 34
© 2002. The American Astronomical Soceity.