Glow on, get happy! Join HMNS this Friday for a fun-filled night of light at LaB 5555: GLOW

Whether they’re toys that shine in the night, black lights, glow sticks or fireflies, things that produce an eerie glow are fascinating. Give a kid a glow-in-the-dark toy or paper her ceiling in dimly shining plastic stars, and she will be occupied forever. She’ll find ever brighter lights to charge them up, ever darker places to view them for maximum glow effect, and generally love exploring how it all works.

You know this; you were that kid. So what’s the deal with the glow?

Enjoy a sip of the galaxy -- learn how to make this glow-in-the-dark cocktail at Neatorama

Learn how to make this amazing looking glow-in-the-dark cocktail over at Neatorama

It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your electrons are?

While there are several “flavors” of things that glow, they all have something in common: Things glow because photons are emitted when “excited” (at a higher energy state) electrons drop back to a lower, more stable state. Aside from promising them a pony or a tour of CERN, there are several ways to get your electrons excited.

In chemical glow sticks, a chemical reaction excites the electrons. This process is called chemiluminescence. Glow sticks are an excellent way to experiment with reaction rates and temperature. If you want the reaction to last longer, follow a kid’s advice and put the glow stick in the freezer or in ice water so the reaction slows down; it’ll take longer to use up the chemicals in the glow stick. The trade-off is that because the production of photons is also slower, a cold glow stick is dimmer than a warm one.

Fluorescence is like light recycling. Fluorescent rocks, laundry detergent additives, paint, and even some animals can re-emit light after something shines on them. Usually we’re talking about things getting hit with ultraviolet or ‘black’ light and re-emitting within the visible spectrum. This makes sense because as you progress along the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, visible light is a bit lower in energy than ultraviolet light — you can’t expose something to lower energy red light and get it to fluoresce in UV, for example. Fluorescent things certainly fluoresce in daylight, but not enough to outshine the ambient light, so they’re most noticeable under a black light in an otherwise dark space.

Phosphorescence is a lot like fluorescence but stretched out over time — a slow glow. So you can shine light (visible or UV) on a glow-in-the-dark star and it re-emits light, too, but over a lot more time, so the glow continues for minutes or hours before it completely dies out. If you have a glow-in-the-dark toy or T-shirt, try “charging it up” with lights of different colors or intensities and checking out the glow that results.

Nature glows

Fireflies produce and use their own chemicals, luciferin and luciferase, to dazzle and attract potential mates — and sometimes to lure prey. A surprising number of marine critters are bioluminescent, too, like dinoflagellates (plankton) that glow when disturbed, the angler fish, and some squid (perhaps they are blending in with starlight from above). Headlines occasionally announce a new genetically engineered “glowing” kitten, rabbit, plant, sheep, etc., but they are almost always talking about fluorescence instead of bioluminescence, so the light is only seen when the animal is placed under ultraviolet light. (One useful application of this is the ability to track a protein related to a certain disease by getting the introduced gene for Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) to link to the gene for the protein of interest). Some animals like scorpions and jellyfish (the original source of GFP) fluoresce naturally.

Cheap thrills

Sugar and adhesives can exhibit triboluminescence, in which friction or fracturing produces the light. This one is great to try out at home; you just need Wint-O-Green Lifesavers®, transparent tape and a very dark room (a buddy or a room with a mirror is helpful for the Lifesavers portion). Dr. Sweeting (that’s her real name) has more detailed instructions and explanation, but the big idea is that a tiny, but visible, amount of light is emitted when you peel tape off the roll and when you bite into the candy, crushing sugar crystals against each other. The wintergreen oil even improves the effect by fluorescing!

Are there any other kinds of luminescence? Yes! Incandescence, piezoluminescence, radioluminescence, etc. But that’s enough fun for one post. Go try out triboluminescence!

Just can’t get enough? Make sure to come early for the educational portion of HMNS’ LaB 5555 this Friday for more GLOW fun, and learn all about the science of what gives things light. I’ll be there doing demos to light up your night. For tickets and more info, click here!

Texas Wins Big: NEED State Program of the Year

NEED – the National Energy Education Development Project – is an organization that teaches people how to teach about energy. Even though the concept of energy education might sound simple at first – too many people think that if they teach about one energy source, they’re teaching about energy in general.

In the NEED Primary Science of Energy curriculum, they discuss petroleum, coal, solar energy, uranium, biomass, hydropower, wind energy, geothermal energy, propane, natural gas and light.

Texas was selected as NEED’s State Program of the Year because of the diverse and dedicated partners providing energy education opportunities to students, teacher, and families in Texas.

HMNS, along with other Texas partners, was recognized at the 29th Annual Youth Awards for Energy Achievement for the Museum’s commitment to NEED and the programs in Texas, as well as our commitment to energy education in general.

Niagara Falls Hydro Plant
Hydropower
Creative Commons License photo credit: gobanshee1

But it’s not just about giving the teachers facts and figures. The fastest way for teachers to get students excited is to get the teachers excited –  and NEED activities do just that.

Before receiving the award, we completed a test run of their new hydropower curriculum. I spent a few hours with elementary school teachers and kids, putting together a water-powered wheel that would lift paperclips.  The exciting part was watching the kids come up with ideas and innovations to make the water-powered wheels run more efficiently and do more work.

To learn more about energy education, check out our previous entries in the blog’s Energy category.

Sept. Flickr Photo of the Month: Museum Reflected

Our science museum is lucky enough to have talented and enthusiastic people who visit us every day – wandering our halls, grounds and satellite facilities, capturing images of the wonders on display here that rival the beauty of the subjects themselves. Thankfully, many share their photos with us and everyone else in our HMNS Flickr group – and we’re posting our favorites here, once a month. (You can check out the first two picks: “Leaf’s Eye View,” by AlphaTangoBravo and “Rice Paper Butterfly” by emmiegrn.)

There are so many stunning images in the pool, it’s always tough to choose. This month’s pick, “Museum Reflected” by bryan.dawson is a striking portrayal of something most people don’t examine too closely – the globe on the tip of our sundial. Here’s what bryan.dawson had to say about his shot – which includes an interesting perspective on composition:

“It was only recently that I even realized that you could take photos in most of the museum. It wasn’t until one of my Flickr groups, Assignment Houston, had an assignment at the museum that I even considered taking my camera along. I missed the big group gathering (you might have seen it mentioned on the HMNS blog as well), so I went on my own later.

I think I drove my fiancee mad since I stopped every few feet to take a photo. This particular photo was one of the very last ones I took that day. My fiancee wanted to look around the gift shop, so I went outside to snap a few. The clouds were blocking the sun just enough to send out some tendrils of light. It was a beautiful sight, but I knew it would look better if there was something in the foreground. That’s when I noticed that the ball on top of the sundial was mirrored and you could see the museum reflected back in it.

That was it … I lined it up, and what you see is the result. I tried lots of different post-processing on it before deciding upon a monotone coloring. I like to think it lets you focus on the composition instead of being distracted by the colors.”

Many thanks to bryan.dawson for allowing us to share his beautiful photograph. We hope this and all the other amazing photography in our group on Flickr will inspire you to bring a camera along next time you’re here – and show us what you see.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (7.22.08)

batfog
Creative Commons License photo credit: igKnition.

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

More than 100 species of bat have been found in only 5 acres of Ecuadorian jungle.

Getting your teeth cleaned gives you a panic attack? No worries – the pick-and-mirror routine might soon be replaced by light.

The latest unintended consequence of global warming: kidney stones. That’s right – and you can read more about our thinner, hotter, smoggier future in Popular Science.

Before CERN’s Large Hadron Collider can start colliding, it’s got to get really, really cold.

When you suddenly fall into the category of “might cure cancer,” sometimes you really deserve a new name. Researchers are currently looking at pond scum as a possible source of new cancer therapies.

The presence of a mirror makes people less likely to cheat. Scientists are using mirrors in a surprising number of ways to test brain function with often surprising results.

The Houston Zoo has a new resident: Vincent, a rare St. Vincent Amazon Parrot.  

If you’ve been following Chris Linder‘s posts from the Greenland Ice Sheet, check out KUHF’s story on the WHOI science team’s live-from-Greenland call to our summer campers yesterday.