Why Does Everything Look Green Through Night Vision Goggles?

The characteristic green tint is by design, for a few reasons. First, device makers have experimented with a few different colors and found that the different shades that make up the monochrome night vision image are most accurately perceived and distinguished when they’re green. In other words, while the night vision images you’ve seen in Silence of the Lambs and Call of Duty might seem a little clunky, green presents a night vision device wearer with the most accurate and user-friendly picture possible. What’s more, because the eye is most sensitive to light wavelengths near 555 nanometers - that is, green - the display can be a little dimmer, which conserves battery power.

Who Invented Night Vision?

The first practical night vision devices were developed in Germany in the mid-1930s and were used by both German tanks and infantry during World War II. U.S. Military scientists had simultaneously developed their own night vision devices that first saw use during WWII and the Korean War.

These “Generation 0” devices used active infrared to brighten up a scene. Soldiers carried an IR illuminator to shoot a beam of near-infrared light that then reflected off objects and bounced back to the lens of their scope and created a visible image of what they were looking at. The illuminators used by the German Nachtjägers, or "night hunters", were about the size of dinner plates and required a large power supply carried on the soldier’s back.

The technology made huge leaps in the following decades, and by the time the U.S. entered the Vietnam War, many troops were outfitted with passive "starlight scopes" that used image-intensifying tubes to amplify available ambient light (usually from the moon and stars, hence the name) and produce an electronic image of a dark area.

This “Generation 1” technology is still around today in the more budget-friendly consumer-grade night vision devices. Military and police forces have upgraded to successive generations of tech with new improvements over the years, but image intensifying night vision - there’s also another flavor, thermal imaging, but image intensification is almost always the kind you see in movies and games - still works on the same basic principles as these early models.

I Can See Clearly Now

The lens or lenses at the end of a night vision scope or pair of goggles gather available light, including some from the lower spectrum of invisible infrared, and focus it on a photocathode on the device’s image intensifier tube, which transforms the photons, or light particles, into electrons.

As the electrons move through the tube, they flow through a microchannel plate, which is a disc with millions of tiny holes, or microchannels, in it. As the electrons strike electrodes on the microchannels, bursts of voltage cause the motion of electrons to increase rapidly, forming a dense clouds of electrons that intensifies the original image.

At the far end of the tube, the electrons hit a screen coated with a phosphor, which is a substance that radiates visible light after being energized. (We talked about phosphors in relation to glow-in-the-dark toys a while ago.) The energy from the electrons excites the phosphor which converts the electrons back into photons. These are in the same alignment as the photons that originally entered the tube, and form the greenish image on the screen inside the viewing lens of the device.

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Legal Authority Does Judge Judy Have?
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While Judith Sheindlin was a real, live judge—New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to family court in 1982 and then made her Manhattan's supervising family court judge in 1986—she's not acting as one on her show. Neither are any of the other daytime TV judges (whether they passed the bar and served as actual judges or not).

TV court shows don't take place in real courtrooms and they don't feature real trials, though they are usually real cases—the producers often contact parties who have pending litigation in small claims court and offer them the opportunity to appear on TV instead. What you're seeing on these TV court shows is really just arbitration playing dress-up in small claims court's clothes.

Arbitration is a legal method for resolving disputes outside the court. The disputing parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator or arbitrators who hear the case, examine the evidence, and make a (usually binding) decision. Like a court-based case, arbitration is adversarial, but generally less formal in its rules and procedures.

The power that Judge Judy and the rest of the TV arbitrators have over the disputing parties is granted by a contract, specific to their case, that they sign before appearing on the show. These contracts make the arbitrators' decision final and binding, prevent the disputing parties from negotiating the terms of the arbitration, and allow the "judges" wide discretion on procedural and evidentiary rules during the arbitration.

TV judges make their decision on the case and either decide for the plaintiff, in which case the show's producers award them a judgment fee, or with the defendant, in which case the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. This system seems to skew things in favor of the defendants and gives them an incentive to take their case from court to TV. If they have a weak case, appearing on the show absolves them of any financial liability; if they have a strong case, they stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory.

If one party or the other doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can really only be successfully appealed if it addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract. In 2000, Judge Judy had one of her decisions overturned for that reason by the Family Court of Kings County. In the case B.M. v. D.L., the parties appeared in front of Sheindlin to solve a personal property dispute. Sheindlin ruled on that dispute, but also made a decision on the parties' child custody and visitation rights. One of the parties appealed in court, and the family court overturned the custody and visitation part of the decision because they weren't covered by the agreement to arbitrate.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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