Reader Gabriel Hanna emails:
To say that something is a scam [is] to say it is dishonest and done for financial gain.Now, technically, I did not say the color in the Hubble photographs is a scam. I said it was fake, and then, in a separate sentence, I stated a generality — "The purveyors of science, like religionists, can scam us too" — which is my standard warning to pay attention and be skeptical.
Astronomers, it is true, are largely taxpayer-supported, they are using the Hubble images to convince people to pay for astronomy. But the other element of a scam is dishonesty, and I do not agree that the Hubble images are dishonest — or if they are, they are no more dishonest than any photography.But I stand by my warning. The scientists do want our money, as Hanna concedes. And people like Hitchens call us to replace religion with science because science is so beautiful. If scientists, seeking dominance, punch up the beauty of their images, we must take that into account as we analyze arguments and implicit pleas for money that are based on the beauty of what they are showing us. The art photographer — processing the camera's digital file — is forthrightly guided by aesthetics. The Hubble images can be presented as artwork manipulated for aesthetic pleasure, but to the extent that they are not — as in Hitchens's argument — it is rational and scientific to catch a whiff of scam.
Light is inherently greyscale, there is no color in it. Light has only frequency. Human eyes are sensitive to three sets of frequencies, and the human brain interprets these as color. All cameras have to "fake" color in the sense that you accuse Hubble astronomers of faking color, because a machine cannot record a subjective human experience.
Hubble, like any digital camera, records numbers that correspond to frequencies of light. The colors are put into the images by the algorithm that converts the numbers to an image. In a film camera the data is collected and stored chemically and the developing process does what software does for digital cameras.
When a photographer adjusts white balance, or shoots in sepia, that is "false color" in the exact sense it is for Hubble images. We do not call that dishonest in the case of digital photography, and it is not a scam even if the photographer sells the photographs. Like digital photography, most Hubble images are boring, and for public consumption astronomers select the beautiful ones in the same way that a blogger takes hundreds of shots before she gets one good enough to post. Like digital photography, brightness and white balance of Hubble images might well be adjusted, or colors altered in the same way as shooting in sepia, but if we don't call it a scam in the one case we ought not to call it one in the other.
It is especially unfair in that Hubble extends human capabilities to non-visible wavelengths. It seems very unfair to say that honesty demands that all radio or x-ray astronomy images be rendered in flat black because humans cannot see those colors, and to do anything else is a "scam."