The Colour of the Universe

light sculpture
ca. 9 by 30 cm
sodium-potassium glass, elementary hydrogen, metal, cable, high voltage electronics
exhibition "rot.grün.blau - Experimente in Farbe und Licht"
Fischerhütte Ilmenau 2008

The idea of the light sculpture goes back to an entirely nontrivial question: What is the colour of the Universe?
The “cosmic spectrum” giving potential information on this colour is more or less a spin-off of an extended sky survey. During 2002 Karl Glazebrook und Ivan Baldry analyzed the spectra of 200.000 distant galaxies and de-redshifted these spectral data. The summation of the corrected data resulted in an averaged spectrum – the „colour of the Universe“.

Yet in Winter 2003/04 this cosmic spectrum inspired Tim Otto Roth to an artistic transfer at the Kunstfassade in Munich. The only downside was: The three colour mixing system of the light façade couldn’t reproduce the spectrum adequately.

Kunstfassade in Munich 2004

Similar to pigmented colours which can’t be reproduced exactly by photographic means also light colours are difficult to reproduce. So light was explored like pigments in painting to approach the colour of the Universe. For that purpose Roth had a closer look to the averaged spectrum: The data showed a significant peak in the red part of the spectrum which resulted in a reddish tone. This peak corresponds to a spectral emission line of elementary hydrogen, the major compound of the Universe.

the cosmic spectrum by Glazebrook und Baldry with a redshift of 0,06

The difficulty to transfer the colour of the Universe into a light sculpture was to excite hydrogen like in an interstellar gas cloud emitting light mainly of that red spectral line. Thanks to the profound knowledge of astronomers, colour physiologists and finally the expertise of the glass specialist Linschmann, knowing especially how to build historic Geissler tubes, a special capillary could be used to reconstruct the characteristic light of the cosmic spectrum. A spiral of that capillary was wound to form a sphere reflecting the spheric character of the Universe.

Glass construction: Wolfgang Linschmann
Technics: Ilm-Neon

Curator: Dr. Konrad Scheurmann

Special thanks to: Karl Glazebrook (Swinburne University of Technology/Melbourne), Andreas Glindemann (ESO/Garching), Mark Fairchild (Munsell Color Laboratories/Rochester), Norbert Haas (Osram)

Information & link collection: colour of the Universe

Link to the exhibition: Red.Green.Blue. – Experiments in Light and Colour

A text by Tim Otto Roth appeared in the exhibition catalogue: Ars Photoelectronica - Astronomie als Königsdisziplin der Farbe, in: in: Scheurmann, Konrad (Ed.): rot.grün.blau. - Experiment in Farbe & Licht, Ilmenau 2008, S. 90-93.