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Hoax behind cosmos revealed

September 22, 1999

I've always been a big fan of the space program in general, and the Hubbell telescope in particular. It's fascinating to see phantasmic photos of unspeakably bizarre, mysterious worlds you could never identify and comprehend on your own, like the Hourglass Nebula, or Paw Paw.

The shapes of these galaxies, supernovae, pulsars and nebulae are incredible on their own, but what really makes them wonders in the universe are the spectacular colors, neon glows and bursting spectra of hues painting the inky depths of space like Sprinkles on a chocolate doughnut.

But according to September's Discover magazine, it's all been a hoax. Scientists actually paint the images to make them more dramatic.

Discover says: "That's right, the colors in many familiar photographs of the cosmos are fake. For more than 20 years, space agencies have embellished images of the heavens. Some of the images have to be enhanced: Photos assembled from wavelengths beyond the eye's perception have no color, so researchers paint them any way they choose. Venus, for example, has invisible cloud patterns that show up in infrared photos; NASA depicts them in orange and blue."

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Man, what a downer. This is far worse than the destruction of the Santa Claus model. And really, even when you're a kid you have to at least be faintly suspicious that nocturnal winged nymphs really don't want to have anything to do with some bloody calcium deposit that you've thoughtfully wedged under your head.

But the cosmos? How dare they?

Well, probably because people like me wouldn't be half as interested if we thought the Eagle nebula that's grandly known as "The Pillars of Creation" was actually the color of dried sewage.

"Uranus was - and still is - presented as lime green," Discover says. "No scientific principles justify these embellishments; Uranus is featureless. Without detail to enhance, the planet needed a rich new color to get the attention of the press. Likewise, Mars has been painted circus red instead of pale pumpkin. And Jupiter's yellow-white bands and light pink Red Spot have been tweaked to orange and candy-apple red."

Oh sure, blame the press. We're such children we have to have a rainbow burst of colors and sparkles to be entertained - like toddlers transfixed by a chandelier - or else we're not interested. Since that's the case, it's too bad they can't take a can of spray paint and gussy up campaign finance reform.

Of course, even the media have to include the disclaimer "Dramatization: May not have happened" when they show some sport utility vehicle driving up the side of the Matterhorn. But no such truth in advertising applies to the nation's chief scientific space outfit when they take a Crayola to the cosmos.

No, it's justified they say in the article because colorization is an "artistic rendering of what the scientist sees."

Forget what these scientists see, I want what these scientists smoke.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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