Weird Science: The Optics of a Highlighter

… and why it’s kind of worth knowing.

Most people spend their lives in a vicious cycle of waking up early, commuting to work, spending the whole day in a sort of daze of busyness, driving home, eating, going to sleep and then repeating the next day. The life of scientists is slightly different — they may follow the same pattern, but all the while they are taking an active approach to examining this funky world we live in.

How many English majors think about the fact that their yellow highlighter marks are more difficult to see in artificial light because the necessary wavelengths to enhance their fluorescence are not present?

How many businessmen realize that their Saab contains a lead-acid storage battery that produces solid lead sulfate, most of which will be used to recharge the battery, but some will be jostled off the lead metal grids and settle to the bottom, ultimately causing the loss of charge and shorting of the battery?

Science can either be seen as a culmination of interesting, but ultimately pointless collection of facts and theories, or as an intriguing in-depth study into how the world around us works. You’ve probably already made your choice as to which perspective you subscribe to. You responded to the above examples by either thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know that; that’s kind of neat,” or “Well, maybe someday that will be a Jeopardy! question.”

If you belong to the latter group, don’t despair or stop reading. Probably one of the greatest misconceptions about science is that all it consists of is a bunch of unrelated facts that can’t be applied to actual life.

While you may not think that it’s that useful to know why your yellow highlighter doesn’t look as bright, it means slightly more to you when the big highway pylon company decided to color their pylons a more noticeable orange instead of yellow. Bright fluorescent yellow may jump out at you more in the middle of the day, but around dusk, fluorescent yellow pylons look washed out.

But maybe it’s not the facts or the possible uselessness that turn you off of science. You probably believe that you don’t understand it. Maybe you really did want to know why your yellow highlighter was looking kind of wan at night or why it looks so bright in the middle of the day.

So you went to your local library, search engine, or even an academic periodical index, and looked up fluorescence. You’d probably find something about “emission of light under the stimulation of radiation, usually ultra-violet (UV) light,” and then maybe something about energy levels, excited electrons and possibly spectrofluorometers. I’m sure most people would say to themselves, “Okay, that’s nice” and return to their lives.

What most people don’t realize is that you don’t always have to understand all the details to a scientific idea to get a general idea about it. I’ll tell you a secret: some scientists don’t understand all the minute details either.

Scientists have specialties, and while they can spout all kinds of jargon about their field of choice, when it comes to other fields, they understand the basic idea and maybe some of the details, but never all of it. So, returning to our example of choice, maybe you know what emission of light means “giving off light,” and maybe you remember that UV light is that bad light that can give you skin cancer. Do hermits who sit inside all day get skin cancer more or less frequently than construction workers who work outside all day?

So it’s a logical connection that UV light is something you’d find in sunlight. Finally, you can put it all together and realize that the yellow won’t give off (as much) light when there isn’t UV light around, i.e. no sunlight. You could even do a little experiment with a black light, which only gives off UV light, to see if your highlighter looks brighter.

Now, don’t you feel smart.

We ignored all the information about energy levels, excited electrons and spectrofluorometers, and still got a good understanding of the concept of fluorescence. Heck, you didn’t even need to know where UV light is located on the electromagnetic spectrum.

Reading a scientific article can be daunting and seemingly impossible, even for science majors. Science is no different than any other academic area, though — give me an article that includes the words “aposiopesis,” “praeteritio,” or “zeugma” and I’d probably end up cleaning my room out of boredom. Every discipline has its own type of language that seems to make it an exclusive club that only those in the know can get into.

Science and writing aren’t often seen as connected fields. Before I started taking science classes, I thought I had left the world of writing papers and essays been behind me. But I’ve found out that my writing and reading skills have even been increased by my science classes.

Writing scientific papers teaches you the incredible importance of word choice and conciseness; reading scientific papers teaches you how to take in a bunch of information and make sense of it. Even beyond that, though, once you cut through the jumble of jargon and statistical information, the most wacky concepts come out of the most dullest papers.

Take, for instance, the gigantism that occurred in the Pleistocene. You might have known that there were huge sloths running around at some point, but did you know that there were 5-foot-tall penguins in New Zealand?

Did you know most scientists today believe that commensalism, where one animal benefits and the other isn’t harmed, doesn’t exist?

Did you know that elephants actually cry and mourn their dead, often returning to the site of their “graves”? (Actually, while researching her next column, Katie learned this isn’t true. —eds)

And did you know that apes and other animals are known to have homosexual relationships?

These are just a few of the topics you can expect to see explained and discussed in this column.

Article © 2002 by Katie Klimas