Saturday, June 6, 2020

By The Light Of The Silvery Newt

Turns out salamanders are fluorescent in blue light. Mostly they glow green. What the hell.

We don't know why salamanders glow green in blue light. They are not bioluminescent; they don't produce their own light, which is the sort of thing sea creatures might find useful or decorative in the ocean depths. You have to shine a light on them to get the effect. We don't know if fellow salamanders can detect each other's glow. Basically, we don't know shit.

It might not mean anything. Many minerals glow spectacularly in UV light, but they probably aren't communicating anything by it. Probably. That's the thing. Rocks have longer stories than we do and maybe they want to tell them.

But I think it's likely salamanders are trying to get something across, if not to us. Some of them glow all over, some glow only in spots, and most of them glow brightest from their cloacal region, a.k.a. "hoo-hoo."

Something is fluorescent if you shine a high-energy spectrum of light on it and get a lower-energy spectrum back out, because some of its electrons get excited. (Nobody knows if electrons have a hoo-hoo, but don't bet against it.)

One of the first people to describe fluorescence was the Father of Modern Experimental Optics, Sir David Brewster; as usual, no one knows who the mother was. Sir Brewster also invented the kaleidoscope and it became an instant hit. Bazillions of them were sold because they were considered highly entertaining in the days before TV. Naturally, Sir David didn't get a dime off of it because he was not the kind of smart that doesn't show off the prototype before securing the patent.

This leads me to believe we are related. Apparently we are both related to the William Brewster who herded a group of pious and nauseated folk onto the Mayflower. And when I look back into the dank-spirited and homely bunch that are my most recent ancestors, they had these things in common: smart, religious, and not liable to make any money. Sir David Brewster was born in 1781 and had the misfortune of not dying before photography was invented, and a sorrier face you won't want to meet. He was brilliant, cranky, teetotaling, religious, and dour. He was considered a prodigy and sent to school where he did science (you could just Do Science back then) and they gave him some kind of license to preach along with his degree.

So he took to the pulpit. Once. According to a colleague, "the first day he mounted the pulpit was the last, for he had...a nervous something about  him that made him swither when  he heard his own voice and saw a congregation eyeing him."

I am instantly brought back to the unfortunate day Pastor Lange talked my father into delivering a little sermon to the congregation.  I don't remember the subject except that it was about Nature, or God's Works, if you prefer, and he was able to pull it off because he wrote beautifully and had a great command of metaphor, natural science and scripture (King James only, please), but when he got up to speak, his deep voice went thin and weird and he plucked nervously at his throat and shook visibly and looked like he was passing a stone.

My grandfather
Clearly he was tracking along some parallel cousin path with Sir David. My lineage is rife with intelligent, overly pious, poor, sober men with baleful faces. I would like to think that my father made that first break with the legacy by merely being smart, cranky, poor, and dour, but having a tot of sherry once a year; also, being a churchgoer but probably not a believer. Plus he actually would've been pretty if he smiled more.

I'm trying to complete the transformation by being even-tempered, irreverent, and a lush. My father and I were both maniacal salamander fans. He would've been out there in the swamps with a blue light in a heartbeat. He was not the sort of scientist who would be inclined to grind up salamanders in order to use their glowing portions in a medical device or something. He just would want to learn more about them.

Because who knows? Maybe when you shine a blue light on them, they swither.

27 comments:

  1. This sounded fascinating, so I asked Google about it. Humans have a rather poor visual spectrum. Many animals, including birds and insects can see UV light. What we see as yellow on a black-eyed susan looks like a bulls-eye pattern to a bee. Birds can tell gender from the UV markings on another bird.

    Some creatures can see into the infrared spectrum. They seem to be mostly nocturnal -- go figure -- like bats and snakes.

    Then there are goldfish. They seem to have the widest visual spectrum of any creature, as they can see both UV AND infrared.

    I just thought this was all so cool! They all see a completely different world than we do.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Even chickadees can tell each other apart, for the same reason.

      Delete
    2. Consider the Mantis shrimp.
      https://visionsource-exclusivelyeyecare.com/2018/08/08/the-best-eyesight-in-the-animal-kingdom/

      Delete
  2. Interesting about the salamanders. You sent me to the dictionary about 'swither'.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh heck, "swither" was half the reason I wrote this. Isn't it wonderful?

      Delete
    2. That was a pretty neat bow you tied there.

      Delete
  3. Ah, yes, that was Lisa I had to wait for in reaching for the dictionary.

    All people look dour in old photos - due to the long exposure time, of course. It's very difficult to hold a smile long enough to not blur in a photo with those exposure times.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think with the Brewster men it came naturally.

      Delete
  4. I'm imagining the Brewster women ancestors are cheering you on for your even-tempered, irreverent lushiness. As well as your love of science, writing and all things salamander.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I find it interesting that I have quite a bit of info about my male ancestors, but...what is the DEAL about "taking the man's name?"

      Delete
  5. It is interesting that they glow, Scorpions do too which is why we hunt them with our Blue Lights, but have picked up on other Creatures that glow equally spectacularly. Perhaps their range of vision automatically sees the Glow and is a Species attraction or perhaps even a prey attraction, to them? I know Salamanders, Geckos and Lizards do hang out around our Lights to catch insects so perhaps if they glow the insects are drawn to them and the light that will be their doom?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I guess it's Black Lights we hunt them with actually, but any glowing creature Glows under that too.

      Delete
    2. Wait a minute...wait a minute...why are you hunting scorpions?

      Delete
  6. Maybe that glow is just their aura! Your cousin, William Brewster (W.B.) McKenna, had another cousin, Dr. Donald Griffin, who discovered radar in bats and wrote papers on bird migration and animal behavior. Not sure which side of the family HE came from, but as a 19 year old I was lucky to meet and listen to a guy that quit being the chairman of the Biology Department at Harvard for a better job. I suspect some of your interests might be more genetic than you know.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Also, my great-grandfather was the first florist in New England. I think.

      Delete
  7. For a species that's blind to most of the light spectrum and deaf to most of the range of sound waves, we're awful damn uppity, aren't we?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Plus, we think we know everything, and we don't know shit.

      Delete
  8. Making the jump from one tot of sherry a year to daily beer is quite a leap for the family! Very cool for you to be just the latest in a long line of smart, scientific folks. And thanks for the education on glowy salamanders. I learn so much here, and I mean that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey, I think I'm also the end of the line. My particular line, anyway--four of us kids, and only one of us had a child, and she's not having children either. Dang.

      Delete
  9. What is it about older generations not smiling for the cameras? My family tree album (aka scrapbook of stuff) has so many photos of old folks who didn't learn how to smile until they were eighty. Stiff-backed and rigid faced, all of them.
    Interesting about the newts, I wonder how many other things glow like that when you wouldn't expect them to?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've heard that because cameras were a new thing, and people didn't own them themselves, but went to a studio to get a portrait done, they took it very seriously indeed, and posed in much the same manner as they would for a painted portrait. It took a while for them to not take it all very seriously.

      ...And now we've come down to people making duck lips while taking selfies.

      Delete
    2. And also the exposure time was long.

      Delete
  10. Swither! Was it compounded out of sway and dither? (Or any of those sw- words for swervey swoopy switchy swoony things...?)

    ReplyDelete