Hugh Pearman: Universal colour palette

Hugh Pearman likes the idea of the universe being a shade of turquoise, but is worried that it’s just another marketing ploy to help make the world go round

Nothing gave me more pleasure recently than the reported discovery that the universe is turquoise.

What made this pleasurable was not the colour itself, so much as the fact that it is not a colour you will ever see, staring into space through a telescope. It is a theoretical colour.

The universe is turquoise in a non-visible kind of way, if you get my drift. To be exact, the hue is somewhere between pale turquoise and medium aquamarine. Don’t you just love the level of exactness that only a scientist can announce with a straight face? They could have decided that the real colour of the cosmos is taupe. But they know taupe is so last millennium. They have given their fledgling colour a new name: cosmic spectrum green.

Greens are tricky colours to deal with, but, even so, it can only be a matter of time before crazed cosmologists such as Charles Jencks (architecture critic turned lousy symbolist sculptor) start painting everything turquoise with a dash of aquamarine. But let us suppress that queasy thought for a moment, and instead turn to astronomer Dr Ivan Baldry of John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who with his colleague Karl Glazebrook discovered cosmic spectrum green.

Dr Baldry explains that nobody on earth will ever see the universe’s true colour because, ‘The only way to see it is if you saw all the universe from the same distance away and it was not moving.’

So let’s get this straight, Dr Baldry. Nobody knows where the universe ends, though it appears to be expanding. We have not yet used our knowledge of Einsteinian physics to find a way to the edge of it, assuming it has one. Nonetheless, if we could get outside it and somehow see all of it from the same distance away, then it would be turquoise. That is, so long as it was not moving at the time. Which might, I surmise, turn it to magenta, or cyan, or chrome yellow. Or more likely, a sludgy sort of colour, resembling taupe.

I know, I know. All sorts of questions are raised by this. Not least being: just how could you be in a position to see all the universe from the same distance away? And how would you be expected to stop it moving around long enough to get a fix on its colour? But let’s not get bogged down in dull practicalities. Let’s consider the T-shirt and interiors market.

Dr Baldry (tall, wild-haired, I’ll wager) and Dr Glazebrook (surely a snaggle-toothed hunchbacked dwarf, though I could be wrong) concocted cosmic spectrum green in much the same way that a child tries to invent a new colour with a box of watercolours. Now as we know, with a paintbox that inevitably leads to sludge. But with the universe – and by mixing all the visible light in the cosmos – you apparently do not get sludge, but instead this rather livelier colour. This, we are told, is because the universe started off blue, when lots of hot young stars were forming, and is now going more reddish as we get fewer new stars and more old red giants.

You try it, all you designers out there with your computer paintboxes. You try mixing blue with red. Do you get light turquoise, perhaps with a hint of aquamarine? No, I didn’t think so. You get purple going on sludge, don’t you? Taupe, in fact. But a taupe T-shirt or can of paint, though undeniably subtle and understated, would not be a bestseller.

Luckily, Baldry and Glazebrook – who, now I come to think of it, sound exactly like one of those firms of authentic-paint manufacturers like Farrow and Ball – looked at more than 200 000 galaxies between two and three billion light years from earth. Let’s face it, when you’re indulging in too many late nights doing that sort of thing, you start to see some strange things. Your brain takes a rain check and you become convinced, with or without chemical stimulants, that the universe is cosmic spectrum green. It’s more marketable, certainly.

Baldry and Glazebrook are well aware that the colour is suitable for home decorating or T-shirts. They joke, in that ponderous Bill Gates kind of way, that they haven’t yet been to a paint shop ‘to see if they have any fancy names for this color’. Fancy names? What could possibly be fancier than cosmic spectrum green?

All you need to know is this: cosmic spectrum green looks very like the kind of colour the Georgians liked to paint their sculleries. Did our ancestors know something we didn’t? No. Are American scientists driven entirely by the need for publicity? Yes. Will this colour be marketed? For sure.

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