Luminescence is the generation of light without heat. There are two principal varieties of luminescence, fluorescence and phosphorescence, distinguished by the delay in reaction to external electromagnetic radiation. The ancients observed phosphorescence in the form of a glow emitted by the oceans at night, and confused this phenomenon with the burning of the chemical phosphor, but, in fact, phosphorescence has nothing at all to do with burning. Likewise, fluorescence, as applied today in fluorescent lighting, involves no heat—thus creating a form of lighting more efficient than that which comes from incandescent bulbs.
Elsewhere in this volume, the term "radiation" has been used to describe the transfer of energy in the form of heat. In fact, radiation can also be described, in a more general sense, as anything that travels in a stream, whether that stream be composed of subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves.
Many people think of radiation purely in terms of the harmful effects produced by radioactive materials—those subject to a form of decay brought about by the emission of high-energy particles or radiation, including alpha particles, beta particles, or gamma rays. These high-energy forms of radiation are called ionizing radiation, because they are capable of literally ripping through some types of atoms, removing electrons and leaving behind a string of ions.
Ionizing radiation can indeed cause a great deal of damage to matter—including the matter in a human body. Even radiation produced by parts of the electromagnetic spectrum possessing far less energy than gamma rays can be detrimental, as will be discussed below. In general, however, there is nothing inherently dangerous about radiation: indeed, without the radiation transmitted to Earth via the Sun's electromagnetic spectrum, life simply could not exist.
The electromagnetic spectrum is the complete range of electromagnetic waves on a continuous distribution from those with very low frequencies and energy levels, along with correspondingly long wavelengths, to those with very high frequencies and energy levels, with correspondingly short wavelengths.
An electromagnetic wave is transverse, meaning that even as it moves forward, it oscillates in a direction perpendicular to the line of propagation. An electromagnetic wave can thus be defined as a transverse wave with mutually perpendicular electrical and magnetic fields that emanate from it. Though their shape is akin to that of waves on the ocean, electromagnetic waves travel much, much faster than any waves that human eyes can see. Their speed of propagation in a vacuum is equal to that of light: 186,000 mi (299,339 km) per second.
Included on the electromagnetic spectrum are radio waves and microwaves; infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light; x rays, and gamma rays. Though each occupies
Though the Sun sends its energy to Earth in the form of light and heat from the electromagnetic spectrum, not everything within the spectrum is either "bright." The "bright" area of the spectrum—that is, the band of visible light—is incredibly small, equal to about 3.2 parts in 100 billion. This is like comparing a distance of 16 ft (4.8 m) to the distance between Earth and the Sun: 93 million miles (1.497 · 109 km).
When electromagnetic waves of almost any frequency are asborbed in matter, their energy can be converted to heat. Whether or not this happens depends on the absorption mechanism. However, the realm of "heat" as it is most experienced in daily life is much smaller, encompassing infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light. Below this frequency range are various types of radio waves, and above it are ultra high-energy x rays and gamma rays. Some of the heat experienced in a nuclear explosion comes from the absorption of gamma rays emitted in the nuclear reaction.
There is nothing arbitrary about the order in which the different types of electromagnetic waves are listed above: this is their order in terms of frequency (measured in Hertz, or Hz) and energy levels, which are directly related. This ordering also represents the reverse order (that is, from longer to shorter) for wavelength, which is inversely related to frequency.
Extremely low-energy, long-wave length radio waves have frequencies of around 102 Hz, while the highest-energy, shortest-wavelength gamma rays can have frequencies of up to 1025 Hz. This means that these gamma rays are oscillating at the rate of 10 trillion trillion times a second!
The wavelengths of very low-energy, low-frequency radio waves can be extremely long: 108 centimeters, equal to 1 million meters or about 621 miles. Precisely because these wavelengths are so very long, they are hard to apply for any practical use: ordinary radio waves of the kind used for actual radio broadcasts are closer to 105 cm (about 328 ft).
At the opposite end of the spectrum are gamma rays with wavelengths of less than 10−15 centimeters—in other words, a decimal point followed by 14 zeroes and a 1. There is literally nothing in the observable world that can be compared to this figure, equal to one-trillionth of a centimeter. Even the angstrom—a unit so small it is used to measure the diameter of an atom—is 10 million times as large.
The electromagnetic spectrum is not the only spectrum: physicists, as well as people who are not scientifically trained, often speak of the color spectrum for visible light. The reader is encouraged to study the essays on both subjects to gain a greater understanding of each. In the present context, however, two other types of spectra (the plural of "spectrum") are of interest: emission and absorption spectra.
Emission occurs when internal energy from one system is transformed into energy that is carried away from that system by electromagnetic radiation. An emission spectrum for any given system shows the range of electromagnetic radiation it emits. When an atom has energy transferred to it, either by collisions or as a result of exposure to radiation, it is said to be experiencing excitation, or to be "excited." Excited atoms
As its name suggests, absorption has a reciprocal relationship with emission: it is the result of any process where in the energy transmitted to a system via electromagnetic radiation is added to the internal energy of that system. Each material has a unique absorption spectrum, which makes it possible to identify that material using a device called a spectrometer. In the phenomenon of luminescence, certain materials absorb electromagnetic radiation and proceed to emit that radiation in ways that distinguish the materials as either fluorescent or phosphorescent.
For the most part, prior to the nineteenth century, scientists had little concept of light without heat. Even what premodern observers called "phosphorescence" was not phosphorescence as the term is used in modern science. Instead, the word was used to describe light given off in a fiery reaction that occurs when the element phosphorus is exposed to air.
There are, however, examples of luminescence in nature that had been observed from ancient times onward—for instance, the phosphorescent glow of the ocean, visible at night under certain conditions. At one time this, too, was mistakenly associated with phosphorus, which was supposedly burning in the water. In fact, the ocean's phosphorescence comes neither from phosphorus nor water, but from living creatures called dinoflagellates. This is an example of a phenomenon known as bioluminescence—fireflies are another example—discussed below.
Modern understanding of luminescence owes much to Polish-French physicist and chemist Marie Curie (1867-1934). Operating in fields that had been dominated by men since the birth of the physical sciences, Curie distinguished herself with a number of achievements, becoming the first scientist in history to receive two Nobel prizes (physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911). While working on her doctoral thesis,
Curie—who also coined the term "radioactivity"—helped spark a revolution in science and technology. As a result of her work and the discoveries of others who followed, interest in luminescence and luminescent devices grew. Today, luminescence is applied in a number of devices around the household, most notably in television screens and fluorescent lights.
As indicated in the introduction to this essay, the difference between the two principal types of luminescence relates to the timing of their reactions to electromagnetic radiation. Fluorescence is a type of luminescence whereby a substance absorbs radiation and almost instantly begins to re-emit the radiation. (Actually, the delay is 10−6 seconds, or a millionth of a second.) Fluorescent luminescence stops within 10−5 seconds after the energy source is removed; thus, it comes to an end almost as quickly as it begins.
Usually, the wavelength of the re-emitted radiation is longer than the wavelength of the radiation the substance absorbed. British mathematician and physicist George Gabriel Stokes (1819-1903), who coined the term "fluorescence," first discovered this difference in wavelength. However, in a special type of fluorescence known as resonance fluorescence, the wavelengths are the same. Applications of resonance include its use in analyzing the flow of gases in a wind tunnel.
A "black light," so called because it emits an eerie bluish-purple glow, is actually an ultraviolet lamp, and it brings out vibrant colors in fluorescent materials. For this reason, it is useful in detecting art forgeries: newer paint tends to fluoresce when exposed to ultraviolet light, whereas older paint does not. Thus, if a forger is trying to pass off a painting as the work of an Old Master, the ultraviolet lamp will prove whether the artwork is genuine or not.
Another example of ultraviolet light and fluorescent materials is the "black-light" poster, commonly associated with the psychedelic rock music of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Under ordinary visible light, a black-light poster does not look particularly remarkable, but when exposed to ultraviolet light in an environment in which visible light rays are not propagated (that is, a darkened room), it presents a dazzling array of colors. Yet, because they are fluorescent, the moment the black light is turned off, the colors of the poster cease to glow. Thus, the poster, like the light itself, can be turned "on" and "off," simply by activating or deactivating the ultraviolet lamp.
Fluorescence has applications far beyond catching art forgers or enhancing the experience of hearing a Jimi Hendrix album. In 1960, American physicist Theodore Harold Maiman developed the first laser using a ruby, a gem that exhibits fluorescent characteristics. A laser is a very narrow, highly focused, and extremely powerful beam of light used for everything from etching data on a surface to performing eye surgery.
Crystalline in structure, a ruby is a solid that includes the element chromium, which gives the gem its characteristic reddish color. A ruby exposed to blue light will absorb the radiation and go into an excited state. After losing some of the absorbed energy to internal vibrations, the ruby passes through a state known as metastable before dropping to what is known as the ground state, the lowest energy level for an atom or molecule. At that point, it begins emitting radiation on the red end of the spectrum.
The ratio between the intensity of a ruby's emitted fluorescence and that of its absorbed radiation is very high, and, thus, a ruby is described as having a high level of fluorescent efficiency. This made it an ideal material for Maiman's purposes. In building his laser, he used a ruby cylinder which emitted radiation that was both coherent, or all in a single direction, and monochromatic, or all of a single wavelength. The laser beam, as Maiman discovered, could travel for thousands of miles with very little dispersion—and its intensity could be concentrated on a small, highly energized pinpoint of space.
By far the most common application of fluorescence in daily life is in the fluorescent light bulb, of which there are more than 1.5 billion operating in the United States. Fluorescent light stands in contrast to incandescent, or heat-producing, electrical light. First developed successfully by Thomas Edison (1847-1931) in 1879, the incandescent lamp quite literally transformed human life, making possible a degree of activity after dark that would have been impractical in the age of gas lamps. Yet, incandescent lighting is highly inefficient compared to fluorescent light: in an incandescent bulb, fully 90% of the energy output is wasted on heat, which comes through the infrared region.
A fluorescent bulb consuming the same amount of power as an incandescent bulb will produce three to five times more light, and it does this by using a phosphor, a chemical that glows when exposed to electromagnetic energy. (The term "phosphor" should not be confused with phosphorescence: phosphors are used in both fluorescent and phosphorescent applications.) The phosphor, which coats the inside surface of a fluorescent lamp, absorbs ultraviolet light emitted by excited mercury atoms. It then re-emits the ultraviolet light, but at longer wave-lengths—as visible light. Thanks to the phosphor, a fluorescent lamp gives off much more light than an incandescent one, and does so without producing heat.
In contrast to the nearly instantaneous "on-off" of fluorescence, phosphorescence involves a delayed emission of radiation following absorption. The delay may take as much as several minutes, but phosphorescence continues to appear after the energy source has been removed. The hands and numbers of a watch that glows in the dark, as well as any number of other items, are coated with phosphorescent materials.
Television tubes also use phosphorescence. The tube itself is coated with phosphor, and a narrow beam of electrons causes excitation in a small portion of the phosphor. The phosphor then emits red, green, or blue light—the primary colors of light—and continues to do so even after the electron beam has moved on to another region of phosphor on the tube. As it scans across the tube, the electron beam is turned rapidly on and off, creating an image made up of thousands of glowing, colored dots.
As noted above, one of the first examples of luminescence ever observed was the phosphorescent effect sometimes visible on the surface of the ocean at night—an effect that scientists now know is caused by materials in the bodies of organisms known as dinoflagellates. Inside the body of a dinoflagellate are the substances luciferase and luciferin, which chemically react with oxygen in the air above the water to produce light with minimal heat levels. Though dinoflagellates are microscopic creatures, in large numbers they produce a visible glow.
Nor are dinoflagellates the only bioluminescent organisms in the ocean. Jellyfish, as well as various species of worms, shrimp, and squid, all produce their own light through phosphorescence. This is particularly useful for creatures living in what is known as the mesopelagic zone, a range of depth from about 650 to 3,000 ft (200-1,000 m) below the ocean surface, where little light can penetrate.
One interesting bioluminescent sea creature is the cypridina. Resembling a clam, the cypridina mixes its luciferin and luciferase with sea water to create a bright bluish glow. When dried to a powder, a dead cypridina can continue toproduce light, if mixed with water. Japanese soldiers in World War II used the powder of cypridina to illuminate maps at night, providing themselves with sufficient reading light withoutexposing themselves to enemy fire.
The phenomenon of bioluminescence actuallygoes beyond the frontiers of physics, into chemistry and biology. In fact, it is a subset of chemiluminescence, or luminescence produced bychemical reactions. Chemiluminescence is, in turn, one of several processes that can create luminescence.
Many of the types of luminescence discussed above are described under the heading of electroluminescence, or luminescence involving electromagnetic energy. Another process is triboluminescence, in which friction creates light. Though this type of friction can produce a fire, it is not to be confused with the heat-causing friction that occurs when flint and steel are struck together.
Yet another physical process used to create luminescence is sonoluminescence, in which light is produced from the energy transmitted by sound waves. Sonoluminescence is one of the fields at the cutting edge in physics today, and research in this area reveals that extremely high levels of energy may be produced in small areas for very short periods of time.
Birch, Beverley. Marie Curie: Pioneer in the Study of Radiation. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Children's Books, 1990.
Evans, Neville. The Science of a Light Bulb. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 2000.
"Luminescence." Slider.com (Web site). <http://www.slider.com/enc/32000/luminescence.html> (May 5, 2001).
"Luminescence." Xrefer (Web site). <http://www.xrefer.com/entry/642646> (May 5, 2001).
Macaulay, David. The New Way Things Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Pettigrew, Mark. Radiation. New York: Gloucester Press, 1986.
Simon, Hilda. Living Lanterns: Luminescence in Animals. Illustrated by the author. New York: Viking Press, 1971.
Skurzynski, Gloria. Waves: The Electromagnetic Universe. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1996.
Suplee, Curt. Everyday Science Explained. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1996.
"UV-Vis Luminescence Spectroscopy" (Web site). <http://www.shu.ac.uk/virtual_campus/courses/241/lumin1.html> (May 5, 2001).
The result of any process where in the energy transmitted toa system via electromagnetic radiation is added to the internal energy of that system. Each material has a unique absorptionspectrum, which makes it possible to identify that material using a device called aspectrometer. (Compare absorption to emission.)
The complete range of electromagnetic waves on a continuous distribution from a very low range of frequencies and energylevels, with a correspondingly long wavelength, to a very high range of frequencies and energy levels, with a correspondingly short wavelength. Included on the electromagnetic spectrum are long-wave and short-wave radio; microwaves; infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light; x rays, and gamma rays.
A transverse wave with electric and magnetic fields that emanate from it. These waves are propagated by means of radiation.
The result of a process that occurs when internal energy from one system is transformed into energy that is carried away from it by electromagnetic radiation. An emission spectrum for any given system shows the range of electromagnetic radiation it emits. (Compare emission to absorption.)
The transfer of energy to an atom, either by collisions or due to radiation.
A type of luminescence whereby a substance absorbs radiation and begins to re-emit the radiation 10−6 seconds after absorption. Usually the wavelength of emission is longer than the wavelength of the radiation the substance absorbed. Fluorescent luminescence stops within 10−5 seconds after the energy source is removed.
The number of waves passing through a given point during the interval of one second. The higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength.
A unit for measuring frequency, named after ninetenth-century German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (1857-1894).
The generation of light without heat. There are two principal varieties of luminescence, fluorescence and phosphorescence.
A type of luminescence involving a delayed emission of radiation following absorption. The delay may take as much as several minutes, but phosphorescence continues to appear after the energy source has been removed.
The act or state oftravelling from one place to another.
In a general sense, radiation can refer to anything that travels in astream, whether that stream be composed of subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves.
A term describing materials which are subject to a form of decay brought about by the emission of high-energy particles or radiation, including alpha particles, beta particles, or gamma rays.
The continuous distribution of properties in an ordered arrangement across an unbroken range. Examples of spectra (the plural of "spectrum") include the colors of visible light, the electromagnetic spectrum of which visiblelight is a part, as well as emission and absorption spectra.
A wave in which the vibration or motion is perpendicular to the direction in which the wave is moving.
An area of space devoid of matter, including air.
The distance between a crest and the adjacent crest, or the trough and an adjacent trough, of a wave. The shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency.