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A little perspective on our place in the universe

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Here are some things that will give whatever might be on your mind at the moment a little perspective.

You’ve probably seen these images plastered all over the Internet already. But seeing as I blogged about the new pale blue dot before it was taken, here they are:

Saturn, Earth and the moon as seen by Cassini

Earth as seen from the other side of Saturn on Friday 19 July 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Earth and moon, as seen by Cassini

Earth and the moon, as seen by Cassini on Friday 19 July 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

That’s Saturn, the Earth and moon as they were last Friday evening. I quite like this raw version too:

Earth and moon, raw Cassini image

Earth and moon, as seen by Cassini on Friday 19 July 2013. Raw image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

On the topic of space images, there was a great blog post this week about the term “false colour” and why we all really need to stop saying it. Dr Robert Hurt explains why he doesn’t like the connotations of deliberate misrepresentation that come with the term, and how “false” colour images are actually pretty useful in helping us appreciate, for example, the haze of Neptune that we wouldn’t see with our own eyes.

I especially like his point that it’s rather arrogant to call what we see “true” colour, and visual representations of the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum “false”:

The idea that out of the entire vast spectrum of light, from gamma rays through radio, only the tiny sliver of light seen by our eyes, sliced into the three filters shared by most humans represent the true colors in the universe is… almost unspeakably arrogant.

There is wonderment to be found in the colors accessible to human eyesight, a fantastic three-dimensional color space of hue and value. I just think it is good to remember a little humility and acknowledge that the particulars of our vision are shaped by a number of accidents of evolution and are no more a “true” representation of the universe than myriad other possibilities.

(Go read it in full.)

So remember — we’re on a tiny dot of a planet, and our eyes only allow us to see a tiny slice of the universe. Happy Saturday…

Kelly Oakes About the Author: Kelly Oakes has a master's in science communication and a physics degree, both from Imperial College London. Now she spends her days writing about science. Follow on Twitter @kahoakes.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. David Cummings 8:39 am 07/27/2013

    Great pictures, Kelly. It is amazing to see ourselves from so far away.

    As for color, I agree completely Dr Robert Hurt and what he writes about “false color”. I just don’t like any of his suggested alternatives, especially not the rather long-winded accurate-explanations of what we are seeing.

    I think SA should have a contest to come up with a new term.

    Here’s my suggestion: Spec Color.

    I know it doesn’t mean anything by itself and initially requires an explanation. But getting people to stop saying “false color” will take a lot of effort, and a lot of talking about alternatives. And people are going to want a one-syllable replacement for “false”.

    Spec Color = Full Spectrum Color

    Anyway, that’s my suggestion.

    Link to this
  2. 2. SciamPhDR 5:57 pm 07/27/2013

    It humbles me to put all of what we are in perspective – the tiny dot we are in space but also the tiny moment we are in time – should all 7 billion of us vanish one day the universe won’t differ much.

    Link to this
  3. 3. David Cummings 8:52 am 07/28/2013

    That’s why we have to get off this tiny dot, so that we increase our chances of continued survival into the Deep Future.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Kelly Oakes in reply to Kelly Oakes 1:05 pm 07/28/2013

    David, I like the idea of “spec colour”. Or maybe even a different abbreviation of your suggestion: “full colour” – although that could be slightly misleading.

    I tend to try to build in descriptions to what I’m writing, so I’m not against that suggestion of his. But that only works for longer captions or descriptions. You’re right that we need a snappy alternative. Unfortunately, I have a feeling it might be too late. So many things in science are stuck a certain way because it’s always been done that way and it’s too much effort to change…

    Link to this
  5. 5. David Cummings 5:22 am 07/29/2013

    It’s true that it might be too late but I think it’s also true that this since this isn’t a matter of life and death those pushing for a change on this issue can approach the effort in a spirit of having fun… and educating a lot of people along the way. I know more about these enhanced color images having read your article, and I thank you for that.

    Link to this
  6. 6. verdai 2:34 pm 08/2/2013

    just that the colors we all do see or recognize are infinite, with further possiblities of course.

    Link to this
  7. 7. bucketofsquid 5:36 pm 08/2/2013

    How about flipping it and call full spectrum color “true color” and the limited human visible range “visual color”?

    Link to this

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