Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Season of Light

The photo above is from an interactive installation called The Hanukkah Project: The Sound of Light by Julianne Swartz, now showing at the Jewish Museum in New York City. Reading about it inspired me to do a post on an assortment of topics related to light during this winter solstice/winter holidays season.

My brother-in-law, Carl Johnson, is a Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University, where he does research on luminescence. When we visited there during May, he took us around his laboratory and showed us several experiments in progress. Since then, I've become aware of the many kinds of luminescence. I am far from scientifically gifted, but do find the subject fascinating. I've learned that bioluminescence is light produced by living organisms. Think of fish below the ocean; the deeper you go, the brighter they get. You might have seen luminescent ocean waves, especially at night. Some flowers fluoresce naturally within a humanly visible light range, among them portulaca and four-o'clocks. How about triboluminescence? Translated into people-speak, this is an optical phenomenon illustrated by sparks from sugar. Centuries ago, sugar was formed into large cones for transportation, and then later when it was chipped down into more usable sizes, in low light, the cone could be seen giving off tiny sparkling bursts of light. English scholar Francis Bacon is cited as making this discovery. So luminescence is everywhere.

Scientists are working with the insertion of light-sensitive neurons into the spinal cord for treatment of injuries. See the full story in the Nov. 15, 2008 Economist. The latest research on fighting seasonal affective disorder with light therapy is available from The Center for Environmental Therapeutics. A Consumer Reports on Health article entitled "Light Up Your Life" (12/08) cited a study showing that nursing home residents exposed to enough daily bright light had improved memory capabilities. See the Harris County Public Library Databases page for access to this article via Masterfile Premier Magazine Index (you will need to enter your HCPL card number for access from anywhere outside our library buildings. HCPL cards are available to all residents of Texas, as well as visitors from other states).

In this holiday season coupled with the economic crisis, some businesses and municipalities are "undecking the halls" by dimming or decreasing their holiday light displays. LED holiday lights are a fantastic way to lower the electric bill. They use 90% less energy than conventional lights. Looking around my neighborhood, I see no change in the amount of Christmas lighting, but maybe that's our brash big Texan way of putting on a show, no matter what!

James Turrell is a light sculptor and installation artist whose work can be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House. His installations enlist the common properties of light to communicate feelings of transcendence and the Divine.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen

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