Field of Science

Recyle, Reuse

A quick flip through my students' problem sets tells me more about them than just their ability to do quantum mechanics. My greener students make good use of the reverse side of the mountain of pages their colleagues print out every day. The paper drafts and announcements on the back side often catch my eye and offer a window into a student world I don't often get to see. Of course, recycling sheets for writing is hardly a new phenomenon. Palimpsests are parchment or vellum pages that have been erased by various methods and reused. The earlier, generally chemical, methods of erasure left faint traces of the original writing on the sheets. As methods improved, and relied more on mechanical means, such as sanding with pumice, the erasure became more complete.

In my quantum chemistry class we talked about fluorescence today. A common example of fluorescence is the odd luminescence of white t-shirts under a black light. The black light is a source of UV light, which excites some of the molecules in the detergent residue (yep - that bright white shirt is not quite as clean as you think!). The molecules then re-emit light at a slightly lower energy, which happens to be in the visible, and that we perceive as an eerie glow. The glow is present even in daylight, but the amount of visible radiation emitted through fluorscence is so much smaller than what is in incident sunlight that it swamps out the effect. But it does make your whites look subtly brighter, which is why detergent companies include "brighteners" in their formulations.

So what do white shirts have to do with palimpsests? X-rays are just another form of light (albeit very high energy light) and can cause fluorescence, too. Iron in the ink is the source of the fluorescence. Researchers at Stanford have recently uncovered not only an Archimedes manuscript hidden underneath a 13th century Byzantine prayer book, but also a text by Hyperides, a contemporary of Aristotle. The discovery of this text extends the known works of Hyperides by 20%!


  1. There's a talk on the subject posted online that might be of interest:

  2. Sometimes the whiteners are called colorless dyes. I give startalks at a local observatory and we illuminate our starwall under blacklights to make the stars stand out. The kids love it because their clothes and shoestrings glow brightly. I like to use it as an introduction to the topic of light.

  3. Michael D. CassidyMay 10, 2007 at 12:38 PM

    I'd love to use this technique to restore census pages where the ink has so faded its impossible to read; but I assume it would cost to much.

    Thanks for the explanation of why a white T-shirt glows.

    Once when I was young, when I was taking a physics course light intigue me. Its pretty amazing.


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