A-1 - Encouraged by What You Read?

Growing up, I loved catching fireflies (or lightning bugs). Truth be told, I still do. What’s not to like about a bug whose rear-end glows on command? And scientists just gave me a new reason to appreciate these remarkable creatures: Some scientists have gained inspiration for an energy-conserving idea by understanding how fireflies work.

Energy conservation almost always brings good benefits. Better lights and more efficient appliances reduce my electric bill and also ease the strain on the power grid. Although fireflies emit a relatively small amount of light, they generate and project that light with a stunning efficiency. A standard incandescent light bulb has an efficiency around 10 percent. Consequently, the bulb wastes 90 percent of the energy coursing through it as heat. That’s why you don’t want to touch an incandescent bulb with the switch on. LEDs and fluorescent bulbs emit a much higher amount of light with an efficiency between 40 and 90 percent. In contrast, fireflies emit light with almost 100 percent efficiency! Aside from requiring a minimal amount of energy, this means that the firefly doesn’t have to worry about dissipating wasted heat, especially on hot summer nights.


Image 1: Firefly in Hand
I found it remarkably hard to photograph a lit firefly especially with a photobombing dog in the background!

Recent work identifies an important mechanism allowing fireflies to transmit that light from their bodies into the air. Since the light generation occurs inside the firefly cells (with a high index of refraction) and must pass into air (with a low index of refraction), the process of total internal reflection would reduce the amount of light escaping a firefly’s body.

However, the scales covering the firefly abdomen mitigate the problem by producing an “abrupt roughness in air,” thus “lowering of the refractive index at the level of the cluster of photocytes, where the bioluminescent production takes place.”1 In other words, the mechanical structure and arrangement of the scales provides an abdomen-to-air transition that minimizes losses from total internal reflection. Engineers then mimicked this system to increase LED efficiency by 55 percent!

The lead scientist summarized the work by noting:

“The most important aspect of this work is that it shows how much we can learn by carefully observing nature.”

I wholeheartedly agree. The inspiration we derive from studying creation greatly enhances our ability to design better technology. Humans are the apprentices learning from the Master.

1. Annick Bay et al., “Improved Light Extraction in the Bioluminescent Lantern of a Photuris Firefly (Lampyridae),” Optics Express 21 (January 2013): 764–80, doi: 10.1364/OE.21.000764.

Subjects: Life Design


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About The Author

Jeff Zweerink

Since my earliest memories, science and the Christian faith have featured prominently in my life - but I struggled when my scientific studies seemed to collide with my early biblical training. My first contact with RTB came when I heard Hugh Ross speak at Iowa State University. It was the first time I realized it was possible to do professional work incorporating both my love of science and my desire to serve God. I knew RTB's ministry was something I was called to be a part of. While many Christians and non-Christians see the two as in perpetual conflict, I find they integrate well. They operate by the same principles and are committed to discovering foundational truths. My passion at RTB is helping Christians see how powerful a tool science is to declare God's glory and helping scientists understand how the established scientific discoveries demonstrate the legitimacy and rationality of the Christian faith. While many Christians and non-Christians see the two as in perpetual conflict, I find they integrate well. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Jeff Zweerink thought he would follow in his father's footsteps as a chemistry professor until a high school teacher piqued his interest in physics. Jeff pursued a BS in physics and a PhD in astrophysics at Iowa State University (ISU), where he focused his study on gamma rays - messengers from distant black holes and neutron stars. Upon completing his education, Jeff taught at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. Postdoctoral research took him to the West Coast, to the University of California, Riverside, and eventually to a research faculty position at UCLA. He has conducted research using STACEE and VERITAS gamma-ray telescopes, and currently works on GAPS, a balloon experiment seeking to detect dark matter. A Christian from childhood, Jeff desired to understand how the worlds of science and Scripture integrate. He struggled when his scientific studies seemed to collide with his early biblical training. While an undergrad at ISU, Jeff heard Hugh Ross speak and learned of Reasons to Believe (RTB) and its ministry of reconciliation - tearing down the presumed barriers between science and faith and introducing people to their personal Creator. Jeff knew this was something he was called to be a part of. Today, as a research scholar at RTB, Jeff speaks at churches, youth groups, universities, and professional groups around the country, encouraging people to consider the truth of Scripture and how it connects with the evidence of science. His involvement with RTB grows from an enthusiasm for helping others bridge the perceived science-faith gap. He seeks to assist others in avoiding the difficulties he experienced. Jeff is author of Who's Afraid of the Multiverse? and coauthor of more than 30 journal articles, as well as numerous conference proceedings. He still serves part-time on the physics and astronomy research faculty at UCLA. He directs RTB's online learning programs, Reasons Institute and Reasons Academy, and also contributes to the ministry's podcasts and daily blog, Today's New Reason to Believe. When he isn’t participating in science-faith apologetics Jeff enjoys fishing, camping, and working on home improvement projects. An enthusiastic sports fan, he coaches his children's teams and challenges his RTB colleagues in fantasy football. He roots for the Kansas City Chiefs and for NASCAR's Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, live in Southern California with their five children.

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