Apparently I really don't understand UV light
June 23, 2020 5:09 PM   Subscribe

I wrote a short story about a (fictional) pretentious artist making a new installation which relies heavily on extreme UV light. Only I didn't quite realize that the room would be dark, not bright. Oops. Trying to fix this. More below the fold.

This is for a short story which already involves some fake science. A little more is okay, but no wild suspensions of disbelief.

So my artist is a pompous jackass who paid a company to make him some sort of extract of extreme UV light (again, fake science) to put on the walls for his art installation, which is about censorship under Putin. My artist is enough of a pompous jackass that he doesn't care about radiation exposure, and he's famous enough that people would come and brave that risk.

Given all this, what can I do to have the room bright? I like the idea of UV still being involved. I could do something simple like have viewers bring candles, or I could go farther with the fake science, or have him declare it an installation to be seen in irradiated darkness.

Feel free to answer from a writerly perspective, a science one, or a pompous jackass artist one.
posted by mermaidcafe to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Maybe paint the walls with flourescent paint? "Flourescent" means that the paint emits visible light when struck by UV light, some fraction of the UV light is converted to visible light and reflected back. Like those "blacklight posters" that were popular in the 70s. I suppose it wouldn't be bright in absolute terms, but the paint would glow in an unnatural looking way.
posted by smcameron at 5:22 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]

Tide and some other detergents will make white clothes washed in them glow fluorescently under UV, and many toothpastes leave a fluorescent residue on teeth. There are also lots of minerals which fluoresce under UV, I think including some gem materials. Some paper finishes also fluoresce, and clothes dyes and inks do as well.

A completely dark room illuminated only by disembodied teeth and moving clothing would be a trip!
posted by jamjam at 5:25 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]

I don't know whether or how much argon will fluoresce under UV, but if the answer is a lot, your artist could pump in the Argox used in diving, and have the room illuminated by the glowing air itself.
posted by jamjam at 5:47 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]

Is the fact that the piece is dangerous to the viewer part of the story? If so something like Radium paint is fluorescent and also hazardous...
posted by Jon Mitchell at 6:18 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]

An electric arc can produce a very bright light as well as a tremendous amount of UV. So much so that welders can suffer sunburn without protective clothing. Your magic light source could be some elaborate arc generating device.
posted by kc8nod at 6:48 PM on June 23 [5 favorites]

I was going with black-light-paint or ... let me tell you about naked people under blacklights with a handful of highlighter markers (not), fluorescent would get a good glow going on. (I'll spare you the details of fluorescence).

But as somebody who burned his eyes out for a couple of weeks watching his father weld... kc8nod has it in OMG bright and you don't realize that it's harmful until you wake up screaming later that day because your eyes are burning. I totally ended up wearing gauze around my eyes for two weeks while wondering if I'd be blind.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:14 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]

UV light is mostly out of range of human sight, though other mammals can see more of it, even in daylight. Maybe some sort of treated glasses would allow humans to see UV even in light. obligatory xkcd drawing of electromagnetic spectrum.

black light posters and paint and stuff, hella fun back in the 70s.

zengargoyle, that is so scary, glad you're okay.
posted by theora55 at 7:44 PM on June 23

I don’t get it. What’s the problem? Nothing about UV means you can’t have other wavelengths of light too. Think of a classic UV black light. They don’t appear dark when on, they appear to emit a dim and purplish light. That’s because they do emit visible light as well as UV that we can’t directly perceive.

Just have your pretend source act like the well-known black light and you’ll be fine. The room won’t be dark, it will be purplish, and brightly so if you want it to be, just as if there were hundreds of black light bulbs in the room.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:29 PM on June 23 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure if you are conflating different things here so a basic primer on UV light and florescence. Hopefully it's not too basic.

Light in the UV range isn't visible. Unless it's a plot point or something you don't have to make up a flux capacitor/flubber explanation for intense UV light in a room, a plain filtered UV emitter (you can get LEDs that emitted UV now pretty easy) is all you need. That could flood a room with very strong UV rays without being visible at all.

However even though we can't see UV light the lenses in our eyes work with it just fine (if a little short when focusing) and therefor, especially in a dark room where our pupils are fully dilated, can cause eye damage way out of proportion to the UV brightness of the room. (UV in general is more damaging because it has higher energy levels) Imagine sun tanning on a tropical beach. Now imagine looking directly into the sun while doing so. Now imagine having had you eyes dilated at the optometrist 20 minutes before you get to the beach. It's like that.

Now some materials like whiteners in laundry soap, highlighters, UV paint, some fabrics, random chemicals/minerals will take the energy put out by a UV source, absorb it, and then emit it in visible wave lengths. This is what lets you hunt scorpions with an UV flashlight.

The glow produced by UV with these materials still happens in a room that isn't completely dark. That's how laundry whiteners work; clothing ends up giving off a smidge more light than is reflected back normally and our eyes blend it all together and call it white.

It also means you can have UV fluorescing material like paint visible in a room even if there is other light sources in the room. The effect is just most dramatic when contrasted against a black background.

You flubber could be a material that fluoresces much more than regular materials such that a looking at it illuminated by a 100W UV source makes it glow with the power of a 50W bulb and therefor is easily viewable in a moderately illuminated room.

You could also take the radioactive route. Materials like Radium glow because the inherent radioactivity of the material is what causes the material to fluoresce. So they don't need an external UV source and they can be very bright if the material is highly radioactive. This maybe could be what your flubber is. It is also possible for radioactive materials to fluoresce in the UV range and then said UV light could be what causes your regular old fluorescent material to glow.

TL;DR: strong UV emitters are pretty damaging to both skin and eyes. It's generally not a ionizing radiation risk per se but rather the same risk that leads to a sun burn. And as someone who has gotten an eye burn on multiple occasions from plain old bright sunlight let me tell you it is intensely painful. And it's not like a viewer might come down with cancer at some indeterminate time in the future if they are unlucky; the effects will happen fairly soon after exposure and pretty much in direct proportion to exposure and sun sensitivity.
posted by Mitheral at 10:15 PM on June 23

The human lens does actually block UV light that the human retina has the ability to respond to:
Late in his life, Claude Monet developed cataracts. As his lenses degraded, they blocked parts of the visible spectrum, and the colors he perceived grew muddy. Monet's cataracts left him struggling to paint; he complained to friends that he felt as if he saw everything in a fog. After years of failed treatments, he agreed at age 82 to have the lens of his left eye completely removed. Light could now stream through the opening unimpeded. Monet could now see familiar colors again. And he could also see colors he had never seen before. Monet began to see--and to paint--in ultraviolet.

We can turn light into vision thanks to the pigments in our eyes, which snatch photons and trigger electric signals that travel to our brains. We have three types of pigments tuned to violet, green, and red light. Birds, bees, and many other animals have additional pigments tuned to ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet vision has led to the evolution of ultraviolet color patterns. In some butterfly species, for example, the males and females look identical to the ordinary human eye. In UV light, however, the males sport bright patterns on their wings to attract the females. Many flowers have ultraviolet colors, often using them to get the attention of pollinating bees.

While each kind of pigment responds most strongly to a particular color, it can also respond more weakly to neighboring parts of the spectrum. The violet-tuned pigment, for example,can respond wealy to ultraviolet light, which has a higher frequency. Most of us don't get to experience that response, because our lenses filter out UV rays.
A thing I learned listening to Car Talk, of all places. It didn't have anything to do with cars that I could see, but in retrospect I realize that Ray and especially Tommy were getting up there by then, and one of them might have needed the operation.
posted by jamjam at 12:15 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]

From a writerly perspective, I'm not sure what the problem is, can you elaborate?

If you want the room light, add additional light sources (build a giant "sun" out of LED spots in the shape of Putin's head?? Sorry, not an artist...)

If it doesn't matter, why not just leave the room dark? Or keep it dark but interrogate visitors by randomly shining bright spots right into their eyeballs, and augment them with whatever UV-gizmo you've come up with?

From a health perspective, here is what overexposure to UV light does to your eyes and skin. So you could have them all get corneal inflammation a few hours later and cataracts and skin cancer later in life.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:03 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]

Oh, I should add that donning UV-blocking glasses and covering your skin in clothes and heavy duty sunscreen is a thing people would do to mitigate the effects. So is your UV-intensifier strong enough to beat that, or will the artist force people to remove their safety glasses to become vulnerable as part of the installation?
posted by Omnomnom at 1:07 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend you watch BigClive take apart some dangerous UVC lights: "Awesome flesh-burning death lamp"
[BigClive turns on the lamp and runs the back of his hand past it]
"The back of my hand now smells like burn pork... that's bad"
- UVC is the very short wavelength UV light which is used commercially to kill germs. These lamps cook germs - and will also cook human tissue quite happily if they get in the way. They appear as blue - and can thus seem to be attractive decorative lamps - except ones that really harm you. If you combined the blue UVC lamp with red and green lamps - then you would get an innocuous looking white light for your artwork. Guests would suffer from significant eye pain the next day. No invention necessary!
posted by rongorongo at 3:52 AM on June 24

Except that extreme ultraviolet has a technical meaning in the art that I'm not seeing acknowledged either in the ask or any of the answers. (That is, the wavelengths are more like x-rays than anything coming out of any UV lamp, require high vacuum for transmission, and are destructive of their target.) If it is not the author's intention to refer to these actual wavelengths and their effects on matter, might I suggest finding a different phrase to convey the "fake science" aspect? Alternatively, perhaps a transparent container (for the vacuum) allowing a view (in a room which is dimly but otherwise illuminated) of the slow destruction of the (spotlighted) target suits your theme?
posted by channaher at 5:39 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]

Was coming in to say what channaher is saying. Talk of blacklights, and UV radiation sufficiently polychromatic for you to be able to see the low-energy tail as purple light, and fluorescence--all that is talking about UV at wavelengths comparatively close to the wavelengths in the visible spectrum. Extreme UV is a specific term for light that is a higher energy/shorter wavelength than all that; I'm not finding anything that fluoresces even down to lower-energy UV photons (which could in turn cause something to fluoresce in the visible range) after doing a quick search.

(Another important point: UV light at that energy can't actually travel very far in a regular atmosphere, it just ionizes the air around it. People who do work involving exposing materials to EUV have their samples in vacuum chambers for this reason. People going into a room with a large EUV light source would be more likely to get sick from ozone exposure, unless they put their hands/un-bespectacled eyes directly against the light source. For "dangerous exposure to some kind of light" fake-science that nonetheless won't make a scientist wince, go with x-rays or UV-C, which will make a lot of the above points about EUV moot. Most of the stuff described upthread would work with UV-C.)

The easiest hand-wavy science thing, though, would be to say that the light source emits some wavelength in the visible range in addition to the dangerous wavelength--that's not such an unusual thing for weird light sources. Pick a color. The room appears to be lit in that color, and also burns you.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:37 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]

The human lens does actually block UV light that the human retina has the ability to respond to:

D'oh! I knew that but got thinking about something else. Thanks for the correction.

Well everything else still applies except all the dilation talk.
posted by Mitheral at 11:34 AM on June 24

This is so helpful! Thank you for helping inspire my fake artist with science both fake and real.
posted by mermaidcafe at 1:21 PM on June 24

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