July 3, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Natural Light Shows Dazzle Scientists

Here are some news stories from diverse fields of science, related only by the phenomenon of light.

Independence Day is a time for explosions of light in the dark. Nature’s light explosions can be strictly physical, but the most interesting are biological.

Supernovas:  Stellar explosions, like supernovas and gamma-ray bursts, are among the most energetic transient light-producing phenomena in the universe. Science Daily tells how Caltech astronomers at the venerable Palomar Observatory are trying to see supernovas “in a new light”—ultraviolet light. They’re trying to determine whether they can be confident that all Type 1a supernovas are the same. This is important because they are used as “standard candles” for measuring cosmic distances.

Lightning—the cosmic connection: For all its dramatic, awe-inspiring power, lightning is still not fully understood. One mystery is the trigger; what starts the cascade of charged particles? PhysOrg reports on a new theory that a lightning bolt may be triggered by cosmic rays hitting ice particles in the clouds. If so, it would link one of Earth’s most amazing light shows to distant parts of the universe. Is lightning a danger for indoor pools? No, that’s a persistent myth, PhysOrg explains. Outdoors, though, better take cover quickly. Even indoors you can be struck (WND). One poor guy got struck by lighting a second time. His name? Rod. (WND) No, we won’t joke that Kurt & Rod were hanging on the window when it happened. Readers might claim pun-itive damages.

Sprites:  Physicists at the Florida Institute of Technology are working to understand “fireworks-like electrical discharges” in the upper atmosphere called sprites, Science Daily reports. Unlike thunderbolts that tend to branch downward, these discharges branch upward. They are not usually seen by people because they occur 25 to 50 miles above thunderclouds, but the brightest are detectable by the naked eye. Only the most powerful lightning bolts can trigger sprites. These amazing natural light shows were discovered in 1989; they only last tens of milliseconds.

Fireflies: What makes fireflies glow? As summer brings out the evening display of lightning bugs, it would be good to share Science Daily‘s introduction with curious youngsters. The reality is far, far more complex than the short article suggests. It’s more than just a chemical reaction between luciferin and ATP. A firefly’s light organs are well-designed arrays of chemical factories, tuned to the bug’s central nervous system. Some firefly colonies can light up a whole tree in a fraction of a second.

Other bioluminescence: Speaking of bioluminescence, some animals glow over their entire bodies. PhysOrg shows pictures of glowing millipedes in California’s Sequoia forest that glow all over—even on their legs and antennae—though they are blind. Author Paul Marek speculates about how that evolved, picturing natural selection as a “tinkerer” that repurposes already existing parts to avoid predators. It seems, though, that turning on lights is not a good way to avoid being detected. Moreover, the Mytoxia of Sequoia, shown in an animated photo, are the only known bioluminescent millipedes; why only them, if luciferin evolved from proteins used to synthesize fatty acids for brain cells? And if they were originally for the brain, how did the glowing enzymes become distributed over the entire body? Much about these millipedes “remains mysterious” he admits, turning to the subject of biomimetics. Humans would do well to learn from their technology. Man-made lights are only about 10% efficient, compared to the 90% efficiency of bioluminescent creatures, he notes.  The phenomenon is also widespread, occurring in insects, fish, mushrooms and jellyfish.

Squid and other cephalopods are masters of disguise with light. Science Daily relishes the “amazing light-manipulating abilities of squid,” showing how the light-producing organs in the skin are capable of “activating, shuttering and directing its own iridescence in multiple ways.” Engineers would like to be able to do that. Proteins called reflectins are involved in manipulating the light show that can draw patterns quickly across the skin like the neon signs of Las Vegas. “The discovery reported in this paper reveals the subtlety and power of the reflectin proteins to fine-tune the colors of living cells with a beauty that reminds us of paintings by Monet,” a co-author of a paper said. How this could have evolved was not mentioned.

Human life is enriched by the endless variety of natural wonders around us. It’s interesting that God’s first words in creation were, “Let there be light.” It takes a very special type of universe to permit light. Physical light effects are amazing enough, but biological light displays are beyond amazing. Fireflies would never flash, and squid never put on color light shows, except for complex specified information coded in digital language in DNA. The lights they produce go far beyond the needs of the animals. One should ponder whether our Creator filled life with such wonders for our benefit, that we might marvel at His wisdom and creativity.




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