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How Do Glowsticks Glow?

Picture an atom. Now picture that atom getting excited. Maybe its birthday is coming up. Anyway, when an atom or a molecule gets excited, its electrons' energy levels go up. When the electrons fall back down to their normal state, they release energy in the form of photons, a basic unit of light.

For most of the lights we make and use, those excited atoms release heat as well as light when they’re coming back down. Sometimes you want the latter without the former, a “cold light” like the kind made by fireflies. In the early 1960s, U.S. military and industry scientists knew that the key to making cold light on their own was chemiluminescence, the emission of light from chemical reactions. They just weren’t sure which materials and reactions they were after (luminol had been around for a little while, but had limited applications).

Edwin Chandross, a chemist at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., was one of the researchers working on the problem.

He wondered if peroxides – chemical compounds with an oxygen-oxygen single bond that could potentially liberate a lot of energy in some reactions - might do the trick. He tried a few experiments and found that hydrogen peroxide combined with oxalyl chloride and a fluorescent dye produced the cold chemical light he was after. The reaction’s efficiency was only about 0.1% (far short of fireflies’ near 90%), but it was a start.

Chandross began corresponding with Michael Rauhut at American Cyanamid in Stamford, Connecticut, and Rauhut’s team expanded on Chandross’ research, searching for ways to make the light bright enough for practical use. They eventually came up a diphenyl oxalate ester that reacted with hydrogen peroxide to make a bright light, trademarked their creation as Cyalume, and rolled it out on the market.

The reaction that happens inside a glowstick goes a little something like this:

- The typical glowstick contains an oxalate ester and dye solution within a plastic stick, and hydrogen peroxide within a small, fragile vial in the middle of the stick.

- When you bend the stick, the vial breaks open, and all the chemicals come together. The oxalate ester and hydrogen peroxide react, sometimes with the help of a catalyst, to form a peroxyacid ester and phenol.

- The peroxyacid ester decomposes to form more phenol and carbon dioxide, producing energy that excites all the molecules floating around in this little party, which then release photons, making the stick glow.

Since the glowstick’s invention, researchers have been fiddling around with this reaction, searching for fluorescing dyes to make different colors (green and yellow are said to be easy to make, while a good purple is near impossible) and adjusting the concentrations of the chemicals to brighten the glow or prolong its life.

American Cyanamid eventually sold its chemical light division, Omniglow. The R&D department there has continued to expand the uses and capabilities of glowsticks, creating luminescent intubating scopes and researching more efficient reactions and glow sticks that work at below-freezing temperatures.

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Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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