Matter & Energy

Matter is composed of atoms or groups of atoms called molecules. The arrangement of particles in a material depends on the physical state of the substance. In a solid, particles form a compact structure that resists flow. Particles in a liquid have more energy than those in a solid. They can flow past one another, but they remain close. Particles in a gas have the most energy. They move rapidly and are separated from one another by relatively large distances.

Sources of Light

B. Luminescence

A luminescent light source absorbs energy in some form other than heat, and is therefore usually cooler than an incandescent source. The color of a luminescent source is not related to its temperature. A fluorescent light is a type of luminescent source that makes use of chemical compounds called phosphors. Fluorescent light tubes are filled with mercury vapor and coated on the inside with phosphors. As electricity passes through the tube, it excites the mercury atoms and makes them emit blue, green, violet, and ultraviolet light. The electrons in phosphor atoms absorb the ultraviolet radiation, then release some energy to heat before emitting visible light with a lower frequency.

Phosphor compounds are also used to convert electron energy to light in a television picture tube. Beams of electrons in the tube collide with phosphor atoms in small dots on the screen, exciting the phosphor electrons to higher energy levels. As the electrons drop back to their original energy level, they emit some heat and visible light. The light from all the phosphor dots combines to form the picture.

In certain phosphor compounds, atoms remain excited for a long time before radiating light. A light source is called phosphorescent if the delay between energy absorption and emission is longer than one second. Phosphorescent materials can glow in the dark for several minutes after they have been exposed to strong light.

The aurora borealis and aurora australis (northern and southern lights) in the night sky in high latitudes are luminescent sources. Electrons in the solar wind that sweeps out from the Sun become deflected in Earth’s magnetic field and dip into the upper atmosphere near the north and south magnetic poles. The electrons then collide with atmospheric molecules, exciting the molecules’ electrons and making them emit light in the sky.

Chemiluminescence occurs when a chemical reaction produces molecules with electrons in excited energy levels that can then radiate light. The color of the light depends on the chemical reaction. When chemiluminescence occurs in plants or animals it is called bioluminescence. Many creatures, from bacteria to fish, make light this way by manufacturing substances called luciferase and luciferin. Luciferase helps luciferin combine with oxygen, and the resulting reaction creates excited molecules that emit light. Fireflies use flashes of light to attract mates, and some fish use bioluminescence to attract prey, or confuse predators.