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Weekend Science Fun: Glowing Chemistry

Once again, our weekend science fun is inspired by a children's book. As announced today, the winner of the 2009 Cybils award for nonfiction picture book is The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton
 and illustrated by Tony Persiani. If you are interested in children's and young adult books, you might want to see the winners in all the categories. I reviewed The Day-Glo Brothers at Wrapped in Foil this week.Day-Glo

The Switzer brothers, Bob and Joe, were interested in science, probably due to the fact their father was a pharmacist. When Bob had a bad accident that kept him confined to home, his brother Joe kept him company by playing around with an ultraviolet lamp (also called a black light). Joe had a magic show and he was interested in fluorescent paints to develop a new magic trick. After finding commercial uses for fluorescent paints that would shine under ultraviolet, the brothers continued to experiment until they found a paint that would glow in regular daylight, not just under ultraviolet light. They had created the eye-popping Day-Glo colors found today in products as diverse as highlighters and traffic cones.

1. Glowing under ultraviolet light


  • a black light
  • petroleum jelly
  • paper
  • tonic water
  • kitchen or latex gloves (optional)

Here in Arizona, black lights are easy to obtain from virtually any hardware or home supply store, and for a good reason. It turns out that one of the best ways to find scorpions, which are active at night, is to shine an ultraviolet light on them. Scorpions glow under UV light. For those of you who are curious, Firefly Forest has a great photograph of a glowing scorpion.

How Stuff Works (site has ads) has an explanation of how a black light works. Basically, we can't see ultraviolet light, but when it hits certain objects, forms of light that we can see are released.

Turn off the lights at night, and explore with the black light. What glows? Turn the lights back on and write a simple message in petroleum jelly on a sheet of paper (using the gloves if you don't like the feel of the jelly). What happens when you turn the lights back off? What happens if you get petroleum jelly on your hands? Take a look at the tonic water and other household items under the black light, too.

For more black light science experiments, check Home Chemistry.

2. Light sticks

The light sticks that glow in the dark don't need to be exposed to light or ultraviolet light to work. They are the result of a chemical reaction. How Stuff Works also has a section about how light sticks work.

Steve Spangler has a video about light sticks, and suggests an activity comparing the speed of the chemical reaction in warm water versus cold water, as measured by the amount of glow.

3. Day-Glo

Charlesbridge, the publisher of The Day-Glo Brothers, has an excellent animation of how Day-Glo pigments work. Go see it!

Entomologists who want to study insect movement sometimes use Day-Glo powders. They mark a group of insects with the bright powder, release them and then recapture the insects after a given period of time, to see where they ended up. This type of experiment is called a mark-recapture experiment. Insects may be recovered with simple equipment, like a butterfly net, or elaborate collecting equipment, such as a huge insect vacuum.

4. Glowing plastic stars

Younger children love the glowing plastic stars. Use them to create constellations, patterns, etc. My son used to like to throw light-charged plastic stars into the bathtub water and turn off the lights (briefly and with supervision). It was fun to see the stars swirl through the water.

Have fun. Who knows where an interest in light and chemistry will lead next?

Disclosure:  As a round II Cybils judge, I received a copy of this book for review purposes.

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