Why Does Everything Look Green Through Night Vision Goggles?

istock.com/nightman1965
istock.com/nightman1965

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.

What is a Polar Vortex?

Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Edward Stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you’ve turned on the news or stepped outside lately, you're familiar with the record-breaking cold that is blanketing a lot of North America. According to The Washington Post, a mass of bone-chilling air over Canada—a polar vortex—split into three parts at the beginning of 2019, and one is making its way to the eastern U.S. Polar vortexes can push frigid air straight from the arctic tundra into more temperate regions. But just what is this weather phenomenon?

How does a polar vortex form?

Polar vortexes are basically arctic hurricanes or cyclones. NASA defines them as “a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure, found typically over both North and South poles.” A winter phenomenon, vortexes develop as the sun sets over the pole and temperatures cool, and occur in the middle and upper troposphere and the stratosphere (roughly, between six and 31 miles above the Earth’s surface).

Where will a polar vortex hit?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the vortexes move in a counterclockwise direction. Typically, they dip down over Canada, but according to NBC News, polar vortexes can move into the contiguous U.S. due to warm weather over Greenland or Alaska—which forces denser cold air south—or other weather patterns.

Polar vortexes aren't rare—in fact, arctic winds do sometimes dip down into the eastern U.S.—but sometimes the sheer size of the area affected is much greater than normal.

How cold is a polar vortex?

So cold that frozen sharks have been known to wash up on Cape Cod beaches. So cold that animal keepers at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada once decided to bring its group of king penguins indoors for warmth (the species lives on islands north of Antarctica and the birds aren't used to extreme cold.) Even parts of Alabama and other regions in the Deep South have seen single-digit temperatures and wind chills below zero.

But thankfully, this type of arctic freeze doesn't stick around forever: Temperatures will gradually warm up.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King, Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

Some three decades after he earned his doctorate, in 1989, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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 article was originally published in 2013.

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