In my physics class, they had a competition in which students had to write an essay on any physics topic they’d like. The instructors would choose one paper from each class as a winner to be published on the Full Sail blog. Below is a link to the blog as well as the essay.
The Great Reveal
It was another typical day at work, fighting sleep. Harsh fluorescent light reflected off of the paperwork scattered across my desk. The bright glare pierced my eyes, flooding the canals of my brain, creating a dull headache. All I could focus on was the prospect of going home. Unfortunately, I still had 2 hours of work left. I slumped deep into my chair and placed my hands over my eyes. I could hear the rattling from the poorly maintained ventilation system hidden by the aged drop ceiling tiles overhead. As if resigning to my fate, my arms dropped to meet those of my chair and my neck bent at a near perfect ninety degree angle. Eyes affixed on the ceiling, I let out a sound that fell somewhere between a sigh and a grunt. The fluorescent bulbs buzzed tirelessly above me. As I stared up at the lighting fixture, I remembered something I’d once read.
When a light switch is flipped on, electrical current is sent to two electrodes at each end of the fluorescent bulb. The voltage causes atoms to dart through the inert gas within the tube. The energy of this action causes the mercury within the tube to change from liquid into gas. The charged electrons collide with the mercury gas. As the atoms crash into each other, the electrons get bumped up to a higher orbital and then snap back, thus creating a light photon. Mercury is used because of it’s high tendency to release light photons. The problem is that mercury releases light in a wavelength that our eyes cannot register, this is where the phosphor comes into play. A phosphor is a substance that emits light when it is exposed to light. So, when the light photons from the atoms hit the phosphors in the tube, white light is given off.
My thoughts that day weren’t merely about the inner workings of fluorescent lighting, as interesting as they may be. I was recalling a book I’d read about dark energy. Dark energy is, in theory, a force that physicists believe may be the culprit behind the accelerating expansion of our universe. While it is almost certain dark energy is at work, no one can figure out exactly how it works. So, we have fluorescent lighting and a theoretical form of energy that is causing our universe to expand at an increasing rate. At this point, you probably think I’ve lost track of what I’m writing, but bear with me.
The jump of electrons from one orbital to another that occurs within fluorescent lighting is a form of what is called a quantum vacuum fluctuation. A quantum vacuum fluctuation is, basically, a spontaneous change of energy on the quantum level. In 1948, Hendrick Casimir performed an experiment in which he placed two metal plates in close proximity to each other within a vacuum. Due to the plates being so close to each other, there were more quantum vacuum fluctuations outside of the metal plates than between them. The interesting part is that the energy from the fluctuations outside of the plates, actually pushed the plates closer together, this is called the Casimir effect. This experiment proved that the energy from quantum vacuum fluctuations could actually create force. Physicists believe that the energy created by quantum vacuum fluctuations could potentially be the dark energy that is causing our universe to expand. Astrophysicist Zel’dovich Yakov actually went as far as to say that dark energy could be caused by gravitational interaction between the vacuum particles.
Those are some very big concepts that are very poorly and compactly explained as I am not a physicist, luckily the exact science is not the point of all of this. I stared at the fluorescent lighting that I had just cursed for contributing to my headache and I thought about the vacuum particles that could be creating the dark energy that is making our universe unfathomably larger. I thought it astounding how something that I stare at every day could have a connection to something so large and mysterious as dark energy. Life can easily become mundane when we get stuck in a routine. That day served as a reminder that we live in an amazing, confounding and exciting universe. Writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I believe that this concept applies to any form of science that we cannot understand. If that’s the case, then we are an audience to the universe’s greatest magic tricks, searching for each sleight of hand and trapdoor. Though, we may never know how these tricks are performed, our universe is a captivating spectacle that we get the privilege to witness every day.
Brooks, M. (2008). 13 things that don’t make sense: the most baffling scientific mysteries of our time. New York: Vintage Books.
Matthews, R. (2005). 25 big ideas: the science that’s changing our world. Oxford: Oneworld
Reucroft & Swain (1998, June 22). What is the Casimir Effect?. ScientificAmerican.com. Retrieved February 20, 2014, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-casimir-effec/.
Strassler, M. (2013, August 29). Quantum Fluctuations and Their Energy. ProfMattStrassler.com. Retrieved February 20, 2014, from http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/particle-physics-basics/quantum-fluctuations-and-their-energy/.
Harris, T. (2001, December 7). How Fluorescent Lamps Work. HowStuffWorks.com. Retrieved February 20, 2014, from http://home.howstuffworks.com/fluorescent-lamp.htm.