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Sometimes if you aren’t watching the heavens (or the news) closely enough, you miss a major astronomical discovery.  For example last summer, astronomers discovered a galaxy which formed only one or two billion years after the Big Bang (so I guess it is unclear whethter I missed this story by one year or by 12 billion).  At any rate, the galaxy hunters used the Hubble space telescope to peer through a powerful gravitational lense far away in space.  Gravitational lenses are areas where timespace is warped like a huge lense by high-gravity phenomena, and a viewer can use them like a huge lense to see far-away objects.  By using the Hubble telescope together with the gravitational lense they were able to see back a dozen billion years in time to the edge of the universe…as it once was not long after creation.  What they saw perplexed them.

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There is a fundamental difference between galaxies.  Galaxies where stars are being formed tend to be blue and spiral shaped (like our own beloved Milky Way!).  Galaxies where stars have largely stopped forming are “red and dead” since the remaining stars tend to be long lived red dwarf stars and the bright young (short-lived) blue stars are mostly gone.  These red galaxies are not shaped like spirals, but tend to be elliptical shaped (like an egg or a football, not like one of those evil gym machines).

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The ancient galaxy at the edge of the universe was neither of those colors or shapes. It was a dense yellow disk.  Stars formed in an (enormous) accretion disk but then, for some reason, new star formation stopped.  The blue stars burned out (“the light that shines twice as bright etc, etc..”), but the yellow middle aged stars were still burning.   The galaxy had three times the mass of the Milky Way but scrunched into a pancake of much smaller area.

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So do galaxies always form as disks and then either become self-renewing blue spirals (maybe by colliding with other galaxies or clouds of dust)or dead red footballs?  Or was this early yellow disk galaxy an abberation? Or is our own galaxy truly new (well…newish…being only a few billion years old)?  I do not understand astrophysics well enough to answer these questions or even formulate them properly (although I get the sense some of these questions may not yet be answered by anyone in any comprehensive way), but I would love to hear what people can add to this rudimentary yet compelling story of shapes and colors.

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The 2018 World Cup continues. We have come, at last, to the semi-final matches and one burning question is on everybody’s mind: “does this thing even have a mascot?”  The answer, as it turns out is a resounding “yes”.  Exercising uncommon self-restraint, the Russians managed to find a mascot who is not a bear! They didn’t sugarcoat the formidable nature of their vast cold, forested realm though– the mascot of the 2018 Russian Worldcup is a ravening wolf—a wolf wearing special goggles to keep the blood out of his eyes.

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The wolf’s name is Zabivaka which means “He who scores goals” or possible “He who accomplishes goals [by means of cunning social media manipulation].”  The wolf was the apparently legitimate winner of an apparently legitimate election, and since we are all busy ascertaining what exactly has gone wrong in real elections around the world, we will accept that as a fact (although this wolf beat out a cat and cosmonaut tiger, which hardly seems like the result one would expect from an internet competition).

Clearly, I am poking some fun at Zabivaka (and, um, also at the fact that our national leaders are so pusillanimous and power-hungry that they are happy to let Russia call the shots here in America for less money than Larry Ellison spends on a single dessert), but he really is a cute little wolf.  I especially like his gleeful eyes and the wild disheveled (yet naturalistic) look of the fur near his paws.  I hope we have some more wolf-mascots soon: he has the fearsome appearance one would expect from a Siberian wolf, yet he is genuinely likable and cuddly too.

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Astute observers will note that this post contains almost nothing about actual World Cup soccer (or “football” as it is known in the rest of the world).  This is as it should be, since Americans know almost nothing of the sport other than that it takes place with a spherical ball and a great deal of running about.  A friend of mine speculates that soccer is slow hockey, but, when we tried to watch a match our attention wondered off before we found out whether this is true (although it snapped back for the thrilling zero-zero finale).  Despite this handicap in understanding the game: my predictions from the last post did quite well.  Of the 4 teams in the quarterfinals with red uniforms, 3 made it to the semi-finals.  Since one of the 4 matches involved two teams with red uniforms pitted against each other, the “reds” had to lose one (likewise there was a match with no red uniforms, which explains how the French “bleus” got the semi-final).  I guess I will go on record as saying the winner will wind up being Belgium, since a Belgian friend helped me program my magical online oracle.  If this doesn’t sound right to you, you can go to the magical omniscient fish we made and ask it yourself.   One of these days we have to see if anybody else has a flounder mascot.

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Primates evolved in a forest habitat of many complex colors and shapes where a failure to properly judge depth perception meant painful injury or death.  Vision is therefore a paramount sense for monkeys, apes, tarsiers, lemurs, and lorises.  Primates are social animals.  After evolving highly acute sight and keen color vision, they then evolved to be the most colorful order of mammals.  As with cuttlefish and birds of paradise, primate colors carry all sorts of social cues.

 

We will talk about all of this more (although, to be frank, we have always been talking about it), but today we are concentrating on the color red, which is of enormous importance to most primates because it is involved in status relations and thus in mating. Red is an important color for primates!  For example, among mandrills, red coloration of the face correlates directly with a male’s alpha status: the redder the face the more exalted the mandrill.  Primatologists have found this pattern vividly true in many species of monkey (and to other very different creatures like octopuses and cardinals, where red holds similar dominance significance).  To quote a particularly eye-opening line from Wikipedia, “Red can also affect the perception of dominance by others, leading to significant differences in mortality, reproductive success and parental investment between individuals displaying red and those not.”

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Humans beings are primates.  I suspect that it is not news to you that red is heavily involved in our own status and sexual selection preferences (for the sake of chivalric euphemism I will hereafter say “romantic” preferences).  Although this is readily evident in the red dresses of supermodels, the flashy Ferraris of celebrities, and the power ties of senators, the subconscious sway it holds over our lives is more pervasive than you might realize.

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In studies where men rated the general attractiveness of photographs of women, the women wearing red were rated as more desirable, even when the experimenters stacked the deck with pictures of the same women in different colors.  The same sort so f experiments revealed similar preferences among women looking at pictures of men.  It might be speculated that this has something to do with blushing, blood flow and suchlike visible markers of fertility/interest (although when asked, men said that women in red were more attractive, and women said that men in red were more “dominant”).

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Wearing red uniforms has been linked with increased performance in competitions (particularly physical competitions such as sports). Controlled tests revealed that red conferred no physical advantage during non-competitive exercise, so the effect is purely one of perception among opponents, teammates, and referees. Referees and judges seemed to be a particular focus of the psychological effects we are discussing here, rating red-garbed performers much more highly/favorably than similar peers in other outfits.

One needs to pause and think of how much more frequently the hateful Boston Red Sox and the despicable Atlanta Falcons would be justly drubbed if they wore dun uniforms.

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All of this might seem like bad news for people without a great deal of red in their wardrobe or in their clubhouse lockers, but there is a counterposing effect too.  In studies which involved paying attention and focusing on achievement-type events like the SATs or IQ tests (or essay questions about the Byzantine empire), red proved to be a nuisance and a hindrance.  Exposure to red decreased performance during such events (although my source does not say what this constitutes…maybe the experimenters had a huge red flashing light or a ringing red phone or some such gimmick that would unequivocally mess up one’s GREs).

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If all of this sounds wrong or suspicious to you, I guess it is the middle of the 2018 World Cup.  According to primatologists, Russia, England, Belgium, and Serbia should all win in the quarterfinals (so as long as they are not wearing their white or yellow “beta” uniforms).  If that test seems too nonsensical for you, you could always put on a British naval uniform and walk down to the local bar.  I would be very curious to learn how your experiment goes, and I will tally up the results as soon as I finish ordering a few new shirts…

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Every year, at or around the summer solstice, Coney Island hosts a festival honoring Poseidon and the oceans…and sea maidens of course (hence this week’s theme). This year’s Mermaid Parade is tomorrow and I have been busy building a flounder float to show my esteem for the watery realms of Planet Earth. I’m sorry I was so busy on it that I didn’t get a chance to write my sirenian post…but don’t worry we’ll get back to dugongs and sea cows soon…

But for now here is the “Great Flounder” parade float. Here are some pictures of me building the giant novelty fish.

One side features a pulchritudinous mermaid waving her tail (since the leitmotif of the parade compelled me to include the titular mythical being). The other side is functional…sort of. There is an oracular wheel with all of the signs of the zodiac. A querant can learn their heavenly destiny (or the zodiac sign of their future mate or something) by merely spinning the wheel.

I have a costume and everything and I really hope that if you are in New York City you can swing by the parade tomorrow, but for right now I have failed to rent a box truck and I need to push my creation from central Brooklyn down to the ocean. Wish me luck and may Lord Poseidon smile upon you and all your ventures.

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It has been a while since I wrote about flowering trees for the garden.  April and May have passed (and the garden’s most extravagant flower show), but are there trees which flower in June.  Allow me to present the Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica) a lovely small tree from Southeast Asia and Japan which blooms with a proliferation of one inch long white bells along its graceful branches all throughout June. The tree is small, growing only to 5 meters (15 feet) in height and width.  The tree is known for asymmetry and has the appearance of a large bonsai tree covered in white blossoms.  As the summer gets hotter these blossoms give way to rock-hard seeds which look like pearl pendants.

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I don’t have a Japanese snowbell, but one can always dream…and we have these lovely pictures to look at until the opportunity arises to plant one.

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Cellular Floundpper

Days in May pass so quickly (well maybe not the part in the office…but the part when I got home and was supposed to write my blog).  Instead of writing an essay I am going to put up one of my flounder pictures for you.  This one is a cellular flounder–a reminder that whenever we look at a living thing it is made up of much smaller individual living things.  It is a truth which is hiding in plain sight (like the flounder) but it is continuously astonishing to me.  This amoeba flounder reminds to think on the microscopic level too, as we contemplate the world.

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 Portrait of the Hon. Mrs Ernest Guinness (Frank Dicksee, 1912) oil on canvas

Of all the colors in my paintbox I am most dissatisfied with blue.  There are a lot of strong greens and there are vivid cadmium yellows, oranges, and reds.  There is ivory black which as dark as the depths of the void and dioxazine violet which is a great purple, but blue is a difficult color.  The brightest blues of the sky are from sunlight which has been scattered by the atmosphere.  The blues of bird feathers and butterfly wings are from careful refraction of light from reflective structures in the wings: if you ground peacock feathers fine enough there is no more blue….

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The main blue pigments in the painter’s palette are cobalt blue (which is ancient and robust but a trifle subdued) ultramarine blue (a sulfur-containing sodium-silicate) which inclines toward purple, and cerulean blue a sky blue cobalt stannate which is painfully expensive.  Oh! there is a manganese blue out there in the paint stores, but I never used it until I bought a little tube a month ago,  so we’ll see how it turns out: it is sort of a tropical powder blue.  They are each beautiful but they each have their problems and none is the pure royal blue in the center of the spectrum which is bright, non-toxic, and lightfast (although the poisonous cobalts and…ultramarine too… last through the long ages).  This is why I was excited when my old painter friend Brendan (a raven painting specialist) sent me a link to an article about a new blue pigment.

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YInMn blue

The new blue is called YInMn blue.  Discovered a couple of years ago by Robin Young, the new blue is lightfast, stable, and seemingly nontoxic (although sometimes in the past problems have taken a while to become evident).  The new blue is made of yttrium oxide, indium oxide, and manganese oxide.  It seems to be extremely lasting, and best of all it is very very blue.  Unfortunately, right now it is expensive (and the paint companies are still testing it out), but I have a feeling it might hit the market soon, and whatever its faults it can’t be worse for one’s health than carcinogenic cobalt.

Kudos to Robin Young for the new color.  I can’t wait to get a tube and paint some truly blue flounders…speaking of which, i better head back to the easel.

 

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Hey, remember the super-massive black hole at the center of the galaxy?  Well, scientists have been thinking about it too, and they concluded that other black holes should sink into the middle of the galaxy near to the central monster.  To find out if this holds true, they utilized the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (an x-ray telescope located on a satellite in orbit around Earth) to observe stars near to the center of the galaxy.  Black holes can’t be detected on their own, but if they interact with nearby stars they produce esoteric x-rays which can be detected (so long as the x-ray telescope is outside of a planetary atmosphere, which absorbs x-rays, thank goodness).  Within the tiny (er, relatively tiny) three light year area which they scrutinized, the astronomers discovered dozens of black holes.  Extrapolating this data leads them to conclude there are more than 10,000 black holes at the center of our galaxy.  I wish I could contextualize this for you, but I just can’t… the concept of 10,000 super-dense gravity wells flattening and tearing all of the spacetime in the center of the galaxy into Swiss cheese is to disturbing for me to deal with (in any other way than blurting it out in a midnight blog).  I’m not sure this universe is safe at all. I am going to go lie down.

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Question Flounder

I have been working on a personal animation project (more news to follow) which involves the mysterious color-changing master of the muddy ocean bottom–the flounder.  Regular readers will know that the pleuronectiformes have been my leitmotif for the last couple of years, and sadly, the whole order is woefully under-represented in cartoons: the only flounder anyone knows is Ariel’s annoying sidekick “Flounder” and he was a sergeant-major fish (Abudefduf saxatilis). What a bait-and-switch!

Unfortunately this test gif isn’t quite what I was aiming for.  Animation turns out to be ridiculously hard: how on earth did anyone ever make “Snow White” or “Spirited Away”?  Yet despite the deficiencies,  I think the work conveys some of the great flatfish’s unfathomable grasp of the secrets of the deep.  Kindly let me know what you think.  I desperately need everyone’s help on this project.

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