You Are Radiant

It was a bit exhausting doing almost a year’s worth of posts on Constitutional Amendments. Having apparently learned nothing, I’m going to start a new series. But this time I’m not going to tell you the endgame. You’ll figure it out soon enough anyway, so quit your whining.

A central theme of this series is that it will be rather sciency. But it’s going to be sciency in a way that you don’t have to be sciency to get the point. I’m very sciency myself, and in a series of sciency investigations into how best to communicate this particular set of sciency information, I’ve scientifically determined that a non-sciency approach is the most scientifically sound. Let’s dive in.

You are radiant. I’m not just being nice, you are truly radiant. And why are you so radiant? Because you are hot. I’m not just being creepy, you are truly hot. Ok, let me backtrack a bit, you are relatively hot. As it turns out, there is no limit to how hot something can get in our universe. But there is a limit to how cold something can get, and it’s called absolute zero. Absolute zero is very, very cold. Ice cubes are cold, but only about zero degrees Fahrenheit or somewhat colder. Antarctica is cold, but only tens of degrees below zero. Liquid nitrogen is cold, and the depths of outer space are cold, but absolute zero is colder than any of them – about 460 degrees below zero.

Even if you are decidedly unsciency, you probably have heard that most things are made of atoms. If you glue a few atoms together, you get molecules. A molecule of water is made of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom. H2O. Whether something is made of molecules or just atoms, those molecules and atoms are usually moving around a bit. But at absolute zero, they are completely still. That is why it is not possible to be colder than absolute zero – you can’t move around any more slowly than absolutely still. The hotter you are, the more and the faster your molecules move around. At the typical 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit of a human body, they’re moving around quite rapidly. And that is why you are hot. Relatively speaking.

When you are hot, you have some energy to get rid of. Your molecules do some of that just by moving around – basically the same reason you get all fidgety when you’re bored and wish you were doing something more interesting. But they also get rid of energy by doing something extraordinary: they radiate it away.

And just what the hell does that mean? Have you ever heard of a photon? I’ll tell you the first time I heard of one – it was when I was watching Star Trek, sometime in the mid 1970’s. And when I first heard it, they were talking about photon torpedoes. I had never heard the word “photon” before that, so I deduced that they were saying “full ton torpedoes”. It just sounded more intimidating, given that they were talking about weapons. But they were actually saying “photon torpedoes”, and in doing so, they were suggesting in a way that these weapons were made of light. Light is one of those things we try very hard to to describe, but it ultimately eludes a full explanation. One of the many ways to view it, and this works quite well when trying to understand how it behaves, is to say that it is made of uncounted little particles called photons. One of the many ways to view a photon is to think of it as a tiny little packet of energy. And when atoms and molecules are moving around, they release their energy in the form of these tiny little packets. And then… those photons can run into something else, and that something else absorbs them, and with that newfound energy, it gets hotter.

This is all beginning to sound very esoteric. But scientists are not making this poo up; you experience it every day in very familiar ways. The sun is very hot, and so it emits a lot of photons of light, and when your body absorbs those photons, it gets hotter. That’s not esoteric; you’ve felt it. If you stand out there too long, you’ll even get burned. Again, you’ve felt that. Sunlight makes you warm even through a window, because the window lets photons of light through, after which they get absorbed by your body. Again in the most again kind of way: you’ve felt that. Photons and their effects are real, even if all you see is a bunch of light.

You are nowhere near as hot as the sun (sorry), but you also emit photons, only they have less energy, and so they travel around as infrared radiation (“light” that we cannot see). Snakes sense their prey because their prey are emitting infrared photons. Night vision goggles work in exactly the same way. If you put your hand over a gray piece of charcoal on your grill, it’s hot even if there is no visible flame. Same thing for an electric burner on your stove. YOU’VE FELT THAT. Photons and their effects are real, even if we can’t see them.

Light is only a very specific kind of what we call electromagnetic radiation, which also includes infrared, ultraviolet, radio waves, microwaves, X-rays, and gamma rays – all things you have most likely heard of. All of these things are made of photons, although the colder the thing that’s emitting them gets, the more they behave like waves – hence the terms “radio waves” and “microwaves”. We’ll get into waves some other time. No, seriously.

Bottom line: anything whose temperature is above absolute zero emits photons of energy. That includes the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, you, your friends, your enemies, your house, your car, the oceans, the atmosphere, your phone, your computer, your clothes, your food, your favorite drink, clouds, stars, galaxies, and yes, even bacon. A moment of silence in awe of bacon.


You’re probably wondering what the point is here. I already told you, this is a series of seven posts. For God’s sake, please calm down.

Until next time.

Shine on you crazy diamond.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *