A reader writes:
why do some things glow brightly in colours OTHER THAN BLUE when illuminated by a blue LED flashlight? Is it fluorescence? But doesn't that only happen under ultraviolet light?
Does this mean my blue LED flashlight has UV output? it's incredibly bright, but is it actually even brighter and more dangerous than it looks?
First up: I highly recommend coloured LED flashlights. They let you do this!
The above animation accurately reproduces what it was like for me selecting the images to use to illustrate this post, except I was doing it fullscreen on a 30-inch monitor, and so almost neutralised my neurons.
(If you're using Chrome and are now hammering away on the escape key in a desperate attempt to make this brain-slapping animation stop, allow me to suggest the GIF Stopper extension.)
In the olden days, the only coloured portable lights normal humans could afford used an incandescent bulb, with a coloured filter over it. This was incredibly inefficient, and usually didn't even give you one tightly-defined wavelength of light. Your green-filtered flashlight probably still emitted some red and blue.
Today, you can get high-intensity coloured LEDs with a very tight band of output frequencies; no blue in your green, no green in your red. I think the best-value options are the coloured variants of the Ultrafire 501B lights.
I reviewed a white 501B years ago here, but this line of lights still sells well today, because they're basically just SureFire knockoffs with standardised lamps and battery compartments. So you can today buy a white 501B that's quite a bit brighter than the one I reviewed, or upgrade your old 501B with a newer interchangeable lamp, or stick a cheap coloured Ultrafire lamp in your old SureFire incandescent flashlight, et cetera. As long as you stick with a single 18650 lithium rechargeable or two rechargeable or non-rechargeable 123-size cells. Any cheap LED module that's meant to fit in a a flashlight like this should work.
(As Fallingwater points out in the comments, there are also lamps this same shape that want a very different input voltage, and the dirt-cheap lamps may not work very well for various reasons. I think all of the cheap coloured lamps are for one or two lithium cells, though, and they're low-powered by "tactical flashlight" standards so don't have heat problems either. These lamps work from one or two cells because they have a multi-voltage driver. Incandescent bulbs are not this tolerant. Standard small two-123-cell SureFire-type lights with incandescent bulbs will produce a dim orange light from a single 18650. If you somehow manage to drive an incandescent bulb from twice as many cells as it expects, it will die immediately.)
Here's an eBay search that finds a bunch of coloured Ultrafire flashlights and lamps. The lamps start at $US9.99 delivered, but a whole flashlight (without batteries) is under $US15 delivered.
A red, a green and a blue Ultrafire 501B, plus three 18650s and a charger from eBay will only cost you about $US50 all told. The cheapest dealers all have free shipping, too, so you can buy the lights one at a time and not lose any money.
I'd really get all of them, though, and I don't even go to raves. It's just so much fun chucking large amounts of coloured light around. And yes, you do get a pretty decent white-ish light if you shine them all at the same thing.
So. Where was I? Oh yes, fluorescence.
Fluorescence happens when a substance absorbs some kind of radiation, usually light, and then emits light of its own.
It happens when the incoming energy, usually a photon, "excites" an electron to a higher quantum state. When the electron then "relaxes" back to its ground state, it loses some energy to heat and emits the rest as a new photon.
Since the energy and frequency of a photon are directly related, and the outgoing photon is less energetic than the incoming one was, one-photon fluorescence like this only works "downward" in the ROYGBIV spectrum. You'll only see visible-light fluorescence when you're illuminating a fluorescent object with light closer to the blue end of the spectrum than the colour the object fluoresces.
("Upwards" fluorescence is actually possible, when two photons are absorbed but only one emitted. I think this is pretty much unknown in everyday, visible-light fluorescence, though.)
Ultraviolet light is beyond the blue end of the visible spectrum, so it can cause fluorescence in any visible colour. But there's no rule that says the incoming light can't be visible; it just has to be further up the spectrum than the colour of fluorescence it creates.
So here are some brightly-coloured objects from around my house, illuminated by tungsten-filament bulbs. Some of the dyes used to colour many modern polymers are highly fluorescent; shining an ultraviolet light around your house is the best way to find them, but a blue LED flashlight will do a good job too.
A red flashlight's no use, though. It's probably possible for red light to cause visible fluorescence that's even deeper into the red, but you'd probably need a spectrometer to distinguish it from simple reflection of the illuminating light.
Here, we see what basic colour theory says we should. All we're seeing is the red light that bounces off the scene, so everything is shades of red, and the less red there is in the colour of an object, the less of the incoming light will bounce off it and the closer to black it will look.
Go to green light, though - not even blue! - and suddenly fluorescence is happening. The red Gakken mini theremin (as hard to play as a full-sized theremin, but with the mellow, soothing tone of a Stylophone! Buy one today!), and the red rubber Escher's solid (sold as a dog chew toy, of all things, at my local discount shop), and the red crooked dice, are behaving as basic colour theory says they should. There's no green in them, so they look black.
The orange parts of the Nerf guns, though, are cheerfully fluorescing under the bright green light.
I think the yellow parts of the toy guns may be fluorescing a bit under green as well. They mainly look yellow only in comparison with the fluorescing orange plastic (as per this amazing optical illusion), and my digital camera certainly isn't a calibrated colourimeter, but there's still a significant amount of red in there with the bouncing green. That adds up to at least a yellow-ish green.
The length of red paracord (useful for all sorts of things, and also the only flexible string I've found that Joey's little razor teeth don't go straight through) and the carapace of the crab Hexbug, aren't as fluorescent as the plastic, but they're having a go.
Oh, and check out the two Hoberman Switch Pitch balls. One is green and orange and is fluorescing a little and reflecting rather more in the green light; the other is blue and magenta, and is hardly fluorescing at all.
(The Switch Pitch is, I think, one of the greatest fiddle-toys ever invented. I know this post's littered with affiliate links, but seriously, buy a Switch Pitch, if you can. Not everything Hoberman make is a classic; the Brain Twist, for instance, is a worthy attempt at Hoberman-ifying a Rubik's Cube, but I reckon it's more of an ornament than a toy. But the Switch Pitch and the tougher, hard-to-find Switch Kick, are brilliant.)
OK, on to the blue light that started this interminable thing.
Now the lower-fluorescers from the green-lit shot are fluorescing with more enthusiasm, the things that never fluoresced in the green are still sticking to pre-quantum-physics colour theory, and the orange plastic has gone nuts. There's a pretty sizeable energy gap between LED-blue and that orange, so it's sucking up and spitting out
electrons photons with great enthusiasm.
My own store of quantum energy ran out before I made an actual UV-lit version of the picture, but I could pretty much just Photoshop one up in less time. All of the fluorescing things in the blue-lit image would look much the same under UV, and everything else would be invisible. Or, more realistically, you'd see everything else in faint blue, because the ultraviolet compact-fluorescent lamps I've got here emit a fair bit of visible blue-violet light along with the UV.
You can get UV LEDs that emit proper near-UV light (not the more dangerous UV-B or even more dangerous "germicidal" UV-C) with very little visible output. Most "UV" LED flashlights use cheaper purple LEDs, though, which may have a bit of near-UV output but basically just do what a blue LED light does, only more so.
And yes, you can get UV Ultrafires, too, but I don't know which flavour of "UV" LED they contain.
And then commenters will, I hope, correct at least the most obvious flaws in my answer.