Oh the stuff I hang on to. I mentioned the other day that my laptop’s document folder is like the ubiquitous junk drawer. You know, that catch-all in the kitchen that holds too many rubber bands, wine corks, and other odds and ends that mysteriously multiply over the course of the year? Some things I’ve found are bits of writing from my two favorite events of Aprils past– the Authors in Bloom blog hop and the A to Z Challenge. I’ll be sharing some more past posts this week. As I offered A the other day, today I’ll go with B. I hope you enjoy.
B for Bioluminescence.
Who hasn’t captured a firefly on a warm summer evening? I remember those bug-smelly jars with holes punched in the lids and a handful of grass on the bottom. In my Chicago neighborhood, mobs of children scrambled over lawns at dusk with one thought in mind – to catch the most.
Those summertime flashes are known as bioluminescence – a natural ability of some living organism to emit cold light. In our human experience, light almost always gives off heat: sunlight, firelight, gaslight, electric light, nuclear reaction light. In the animal kingdom, this heat-free process is seen in sea creatures, certain insects and their larvae, worms, and spiders. We also see it in mushrooms and bacteria. From the first time my grubby little hands held a stinky firefly I’ve wondered how it lit up its tail end. Now I know.
The cold light is produced by chemical reaction. One chemical, luciferin** is a substrate – That is, a substance which is acted upon by an enzyme. The other chemical is the enzyme itself – luciferase. Different creatures produce a range of these chemicals, resulting in different colors of light.
Fungi glow bluish-green night and day. This too is a chemical reaction, but the verdict is out on just what the purpose is. Some scientists feel it deters creatures that would eat the fungi, while others feel it’s a way to draw attention and get better spore distribution. And others believe, in some species, this glow attracts beneficial insects that eat damage-causing insects. Bioluminescent bacteria are believed to use their glow to communicate with one another. While fireflies are somewhat yellow, marine life most often produces the color blue. This makes sense because the color blue falls in the high-frequency end of the visible light spectrum, meaning blue light would penetrate the farthest through water.
However it’s used, bioluminescence in the animal world has purpose. In the ocean, bioluminescence can lure food, attract a mate, and warn off or make your shape visually confusing to predators. There’s a species of shrimp that sends out a cloud of blindingly bright goo in a last ditch effort to get away from whatever is trying to eat them. On the other side of the predator/prey relationship, the angler fish dangles his little lantern like a lure to draw his prey closer to his mouth.
Insects have both uses for their glow too. The nighttime flash of the firefly is meant to attract a mate. This summer, pay attention to how many times the fireflies flash. If a firefly flashes his light twice, it will attract a two-flash species. If a firefly flashes three times, that’s meant to attract a three-flash species. But there’s an interesting tidbit of firefly bioluminescence that’s worth adding here, there are predator fireflies out there who mimic the flashes of other species. They use their bioluminescence to trick, capture, and eat those unsuspecting fireflies who are just trying to get on with the mating business. It adds a whole layer of drama to a warm summer night, doesn’t it? What a wondrous world we live in.
**Luciferin was named for the fallen archangel Lucifer. The name means bringer of light.
B for Baghdad Battery
One of the more unusual artifacts discovered on an archaeological dig turned up approximately 20 miles outside of Baghdad, Iraq in 1936. At first glance the finds appeared to be simple clay jars with iron lids and asphalt seals. They stood several inches tall and each had a copper tube with an inserted iron rod down the center. No one gave them much attention at the time.
Three years later, German archaeologist Wilhelm Konig was rooting around the stored antiquities in the National Museum of Iraq. Upon finding these odd vessels he drew a rather startling conclusion. The jars looked like galvanic cells — in other words — batteries. Residue showed the jars had held slightly acidic liquid.. perhaps wine, vinegar, or citrus juice. The different metals involved would react to the acid and produce a mild electric current. Reconstruction of this odd device proves it generates a current between 0.4 and 1.9 volts.
There is some speculation among people who study such things that the Baghdad batteries could have been use medicinally for pain relief in the same manner electrical current is used today. Another opinion suggests they were used for electroplating. Whatever these inventions were used for, their modern counterpart didn’t come about until 2000 years later.
This explains a likely use for the Baghdad battery.
This offers a peek into the battery assembly should you care to make one
yourself. How cool is that?
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