Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Green Stars

Go to any planetarium show and they will probably point out how some of the stars are different colors. Betelguese (Orion's shoulder) is a deep red, while Rigel (his knee) is blueish white. That's because the stars are glowing bodies that emit a distribution of radiation that more or less follows the black body curve. Cool objects like candles glow red, brighter ones like incandescent bulbs are orange-yellow, and really hot things like a welder's torch or lightning are blue-white. In fact, the colors themselves are described by the temperature (in Kelvins) of an object that would emit light of that shade. You can see in the color below the path of the black body curve.
But back to the original question? Why does it skip green?

Hotter objects emit more energy than cooler ones, and the peak frequency also increases, according to Planck's Law. So logically, at some point, the peak emission wavelength should pass through green. But as this excellent (allegedly kid-oriented) video describes, when that happens, we don't see green because of how our eyes see color.

Our eyes have three cones that detect three frequencies of light that our brain interprets as color vision. When the black bodies emit at a temperature that peaks in green, it's also sending out less (but still lots of) light at nearby frequencies (blue and red). So with all that light coming in, our brain sees the green-peaking stars as white.

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