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Why can’t I revive the “glow light” I bought at a concert?

Dear Cecil:

At a recent jazz festival I bought a length of hollow plastic tubing about a foot and a half long filled with a green liquid that gave off an eerie neon glow bright enough to read by. It cost $1, but in three hours the glow had gone. Various treatments (light, extreme heat and cold) have not brought the light back. What gives?

O.T.M., Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Listen, kid, just be grateful you didn’t put a down payment on the Brooklyn Bridge. Light tubes are intended to amuse the masses for a few hours, not light up the rest of your life. The ingredients are made by American Cyanamid Corporation of New Jersey in the form of something called a light stick or glow stick. Each light stick contains two chemicals separated by a plastic barrier, which the user must break to get things started. It’s thought that many light-stick and light-necklace entrepreneurs drain the chemicals out of the original tubing into smaller tubes in order to boost the profit margin. Naturally they have to do this several hours before the start of the show, which may explain why American Cyanamid light sticks glow for 12 hours and yours only went for three.

Although the precise chemical formulation in light sticks is secret, in general you have a substance called luciferin that oxidizes and glows when catalyzed by an enzyme called luciferase. It’s the same principle used by lightning bugs. Cold will slow down the reaction, which is why light-stick vendors store their wares in freezers, but once the chemicals are used up, the show’s over and no amount of effort will bring the glow back. Light sticks are mostly intended for boaters, campers, and the like, but a fair number of them end up in the hands of innocent souls such as yourself. Look at the bright side, so to speak — $1 is a small price to pay for a short course in reality.

Cecil Adams

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