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Strange Moonlight

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Sept. 28, 2006: Not so long ago, before electric lights, farmers relied on moonlight to harvest autumn crops. With everything ripening at once, there was too much work to to do to stop at sundown. A bright full moon—a "Harvest Moon"—allowed work to continue into the night.

see captionThe moonlight was welcome, but as any farmer could tell you, it was strange stuff. How so? See for yourself. The Harvest Moon of 2006 rises on October 6th, and if you pay attention, you may notice a few puzzling things:

1. Moonlight steals color from whatever it touches. Regard a rose. In full moonlight, the flower is brightly lit and even casts a shadow, but the red is gone, replaced by shades of gray. In fact, the whole landscape is that way. It's a bit like seeing the world through an old black and white TV set.

Right: The Harvest Moon of 2005. Photo credit: Sr. Fins Eirexas of Pobra do Caramiñal, Galiza, Spain.

"Moon gardens" turn this 1950s-quality of moonlight to advantage. White or silver flowers that bloom at night are both fragrant and vivid beneath a full moon. Favorites include Four-O'clocks, Moonflower Vines, Angel's Trumpets—but seldom red roses.

2. If you stare at the gray landscape long enough, it turns blue. The best place to see this effect, called the "blueshift" or "Purkinje shift" after the 19th century scientist Johannes Purkinje who first described it, is in the countryside far from artificial lights. As your eyes become maximally dark adapted, the blue appears. Film producers often put a blue filter over the lens when filming night scenes to create a more natural feel, and artists add blue to paintings of nightscapes for the same reason. Yet if you look up at the full moon, it is certainly not blue. (Note: Fine ash from volcanoes or forest fires can turn moons blue, but that's another story.)

3. Moonlight won't let you read. Open a book beneath the full moon. At first glance, the page seems bright enough. Yet when you try to make out the words, you can't. Moreover, if you stare too long at a word it might fade away. Moonlight not only blurs your vision but also makes a little blind spot. (Another note: As with all things human, there are exceptions. Some people have extra-sensitive cones or an extra helping of rods that do allow them to read in the brightest moonlight.)

This is all very strange. Moonlight, remember, is no more exotic than sunlight reflected from the dusty surface of the moon. The only difference is intensity: Moonlight is about 400,000 times fainter than direct sunlight.

see captionSo what do we make of it all? The answer lies in the eye of the beholder. The human retina is responsible.

The retina is like an organic digital camera with two kinds of pixels: rods and cones. Cones allow us to see colors (red roses) and fine details (words in a book), but they only work in bright light. After sunset, the rods take over.

Rods are marvelously sensitive (1000 times more so than cones) and are responsible for our night vision. According to some reports, rods can detect as little as a single photon of light! There's only one drawback: rods are colorblind. Roses at night thus appear gray.

If rods are so sensitive, why can't we use them to read by moonlight? The problem is, rods are almost completely absent from a central patch of retina called the fovea, which the brain uses for reading. The fovea is densely packed with cones, so we can read during the day. At night, however, the fovea becomes a blind spot. The remaining peripheral vision isn't sharp enough to make out individual letters and words.

see captionFinally, we come to the blueshift. Consider this passage from a 2004 issue of the Journal of Vision:

"It should be noted that the perception of blue color or any color for that matter in a purely moonlit environment is surprising, considering that the light intensity is below the detection threshold for cone cells. Therefore if the cones are not being stimulated how do we perceive the blueness?" --"Modeling Blueshift in Moonlit Scenes using Rod-Cone Interaction" by Saad M. Khan and Sumanta N. Pattanaik, University of Central Florida.

The authors of the study went on to propose a bio-electrical explanation--that signals from rods can spill into adjacent blue-sensitive cones under conditions of full-moon illumination (see the diagram, right). This would create an illusion of blue. "Unfortunately," they point out, "direct physiological evidence to support or negate the hypothesis is not yet available."

So there are still some mysteries in the moonlight. Look for them on Oct. 6th under the Harvest Moon.

Caveat Lunar: This story makes some generalizations about what people can see at night but, as with all things human, there are exceptions: Some people can read by moonlight; others have no trouble seeing the red petals of a moonlit rose. These people have "moonvision," boosted by an extra-helping of rods or unusually sensitive cones. Are you one of them?

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

More to the story...

More information about the Moonlight blueshift:

The blueshift is sometimes attributed to the spectral response of rods. Although rods are nominally color blind, they do not respond equally to all colors: Rods are more sensitive to blue-green photons and less sensitive to red photons. You can see this in your moonlit rose. By day, the red flower dominates the green leaves. At night, the situation is reversed. The green leaves are more vivid than the red flower.

No matter which part of the rose stands out most, however, the ensemble is still gray. This is because the rods have no mechanism for separating colors. Shades of gray are all we get.

Cones are able to separate colors because they come in three varieties: red-sensitive, green-sensitive, and blue-sensitive. The brain can sort out the color of an object by noting which kind of cone it stimulates most.

Rods, on the other hand, come in one variety only--monochromatic, which brings us back to the mystery of the blue shift. If rods can't separate colors, how does the brain register a blue rather than gray landscape? Khan and Pattanaik's hypothesis of rod signals "bleeding" into adjacent blue-sensitive cones provides a possible but untested explanation.

Dates and Times: The Moon is full on Oct 7th at 0313 UT or 11:13 pm EDT on Oct. 6th: Moon phase calendar.

Web Links:

The Eye and Night Vision -- from the USAF Special Report, AL-SR-1992-0002, "Night Vision Manual for the Flight Surgeon", written by Robert E. Miller II, Col, USAF, (RET) and Thomas J. Tredici, Col, USAF, (RET)

Webvision -- The organization of the Retina and the Visual System

The Purkinje shift -- (Wikipedia)

Rods and Cones -- (Hyperphysics)

Night Rendering -- a study of moonlight in art and computer graphics

What do dogs see? -- (Journal of Veterinary Medicine)

How Vision Works -- (HowStuffWorks)

The Vision for Space Exploration