Looking Through Paintings to See What’s Hidden – Facts So Romantic

This post originally ran on Facts So Romantic in May, 2013.

There is more to the world than meets the human eye, a fact that hit home for the 18th-century astronomer Sir Frederick William Herschel when he discovered infrared light—a wavelength of light that lies just outside the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. We can feel its heat, but we can’t see the light—not without special equipment designed to be sensitive in this regime.

It’s somehow fitting that this invisible form of radiation is now used by infrared telescopes to “see” through interstellar dust in our universe to image distant, hidden galaxies, among other celestial objects—not to mention the increasingly common use of infrared (IR) photography here on Earth. A simple image of a park on a sunny day is transformed in the infrared into an eerily surreal landscape, simultaneously familiar and alien.

That’s because many materials reflect, absorb, and transmit infrared light differently than they do visible light: Reds and greens appear lighter, while blues and browns appear dark. A clear sky will appear very dark, except for the occasional white cloud; vegetation, like trees, reflects IR and will appear extremely bright in an infrared image—unless the tree…

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