astronomical lies

It occurs to me that when we actually get out into space, it's going to be a real let-down to look out the window. Because all those great pictures of nebulae and gas clouds and pulsars that we're so familiar with -- most of that stuff ain't real. Those are false-color images doing tricks like "let's use red to indicate oxygen". Most of the action is way outside the range of human vision.

Though, I guess by the time we get out there, we'll be able to just ratchet our vision up into the far-infrared at will, so maybe that'll be fine.

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18 Responses:

  1. hafnir says:

    In particular regarding the images of the planets, we used to call that "JPL-ing" the images. You're supposed to take a thin tissue and look through it and that's closer to how it really looks. :)

  2. jerronimo says:

    Hubble images are about how they really look... although they're much smaller since they're so damned far away. ;)

    But yeah.. anything from SOHO, Chandra, any UV, IR or multispectral observatory... they're all prettied up for publishing.


  3. papawheelie says:

    Well yeah, I mean, how else are you going to show something that's only visable in the x-ray spectrum?

    • jwz says:

      Well yeah, that was kinda my point. But it's sad that there won't really be much to see, after our expectations have been built up with these pretty pictures.

      • papawheelie says:

        True, but I assume that by that time our retinal implants will just give us overlays. Or we'll have another half dozen senses.... It'd be pretty cool to have a built in gravitomiter.

  4. marm0t says:

    Most of the action is way outside the range of human vision.

    I've had dates like that.

  5. netik says:

    I'll have to show the pleadies sometime through a telescope. Your faith in outerspace will be completely restored; they're beautiful.

    • phygelus says:

      or even just binoculars. Showing someone the moons of Jupiter for the first time is always a treat, and even a cheap pair of 7x35s will do...

      • jwz says:

        I've seen Saturn through a big telescope, and it was very cool... but it didn't look real! It looked like a saturn-shaped sticker. It looked flat. Not what I expected at all...

        • jwz says:

          (by "big telescope" I mean "observatory")

          • phygelus says:

            Some people find binocular images less flat. I really enjoy my Fujinon 7x50s, enough that I drool over bigger binoculars and plan to build a trapezoidal mount for them, but they don't turn the sky into a Star Trek opening sequence.

            Have you ever seen the huge (150mm) binocular telescopes serious amateur comet hunters use?

  6. belgand says:

    It's pretty much the same in any science. As a biologist I look at books full of little globs and blobs and all sorts of various pieces. Hell, I'm not even getting into scanning electron microscopes yet. But all the work I do (mapping genes confering susceptibility to a particular mutagen in yeast) largely consists of moving very small ammounts of clear fluids between tubes. Most of the time even the precipitates are white or a dull brown. It's all very fascinating in the same way that chemical and atomic structure are, but in reality most of what you actually get to look at is rather disheartening.

    • jwz says:

      That is a fabulous user icon. I was thinking of doing one like that, dammit!

    • rzr_grl says:

      See, I just assumed that as a scientist all one ever got to look at was math.

      • belgand says:

        Goodness no! Personally I rather dislike math. About all the math I typically tend to do in biology (admittedly I'm still a student) is dealing with dilutions and other basic first semester chemistry. About the only scientists I know of who spend a significant ammount of time doing math are theoretical physicists.

  7. zapevaj says:

    Actually, the nebulae and gas clouds will still be quite pretty, since ionized hydrogen does actually glow pinkish, and reflection nebulae do reflect blue light. Galaxies will also be just as gorgeous, since their color and particular characteristics (like how some galaxies look like chunks of diamonds buried in sparkling dust) will depend on the concentration of stars and the makeup of the galactic dust. I don't think false-color is generally used in those photos.

    • midendian says:

      Pictures of nubulae, etc, are not usually false-colored, but they are time-exposed, collecting light over the span of several minutes. This process brings out detail that the human eye can't. But the colors mostly the same either way.

  8. wfaulk says:

    One of the more interesting things about this that I've heard is that those in the know can actually tell where an image came from based on the color set used. It's apparently not even based on the same color for the same wavelengths, but that the “colorization artists” at each lab just think that the color set they use is attractive.