Jon de Vos – Don’t curse the darkness
October 15, 2009
The other day as I walked by the aquarium, I noticed that all the fish were lined up and staring goggle-eyed at me. I bent over to view this odd spectacle closer, pressing my nose on the thin glass that separates our worlds. Close up, I could see that the fat red Molly on the end was holding up a sign that said, “Dear Slumlord, we’re tired of living in a dump. Would it kill you to drop a few bucks and fix up the place?”
So at a pet store I bought them a battered-looking ceramic Studebaker and buried it nose-deep in the gravel, sort of a watery tribute to Carhenge, along with a small forest of fake plants and a plastic coral reef whose only association with salt water was the soy sauce in the cafeteria of the Chinese factory where they are made. That night, after watching a good horror movie, I tucked in all my finny friends and shut the light off, startled to discover that the plants I’d bought were glowing eerily in the dark. The ghostly scene caused my knees to rapidly chatter as I raced upstairs to the safety and security of my binky.
Since then, I’ve learned that not all glow-in-the-dark things are equal. There’s phosphorescence whereby chemicals called phosphors absorb light while it’s there to absorb and slowly release light after things are dark. This is the same phenomenon that makes our computer screens light up. Without power, the effects fade quickly lasting generally less than an hour.
Then there’s chemiluminescence, which creates light by the interaction of two or more chemicals. When you bend a light stick, you’re breaking a seal that allows two chemicals to mix together, creating light. The weirdest glow of all is bioluminescence, whereby animals produce light through organic means. Fireflies are an example of bioluminescence, a chemical reaction that occurs naturally in some nocturnal land animals like certain types of centipedes, millipedes, beetles and even the humble glow worm.
The real light show, however, takes place in the briny depths where 80 percent of the animals that live deeper than 300 feet in the ocean make their own light. While mankind has been busy inventing credit default swaps, deep sea critters have been perfecting their submarine lanterns.
Deep sea creatures use their light-creating abilities for the protection and survival of the species. Certain squid secrete a luminous cloud to confuse their attackers and aid them in making an escape, while several fish dangle lighted lures to attract prey, frighten predators, and disguise their forms from enemies. Some of them seem to use their luminescence just to get around in the dark.
There are several luminous shrimps and squid but only a single species of glowing octopus that lives in the Sea of Japan. Nearly all jellyfish glow in the dark. Several deep ocean dwellers light up over time by collecting symbiotic luminous bacteria within light organs. These creatures can only extinguish the light by sliding a fold of black skin over the illumination like an eyelid.
The light they produce is nearly 100 percent efficient, cool to the touch and harmless to eat. Scientists have isolated the light-up gene and learned to clone identical replicas, over and over, splicing them into protein-making bacteria that begin to multiply by the billions. They’ve tamed this cold fire and are beginning to use it to benefit the human race with luminous beer. Soon there will be no more stumbling around in darkened bars because the new Beck’s Light will beckon us like a beacon in the blackest tavern.
Now we can get that special glow before the beer rather than after.
– Jon de Vos lives quietly with his pet rat named Willard; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org