Jewish World Review July 6, 2011 / 4 Tammuz, 5771
Lightening bugs and other things make us glow
By Sharon Randall
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | It's not often that I dare to expound on scientific research. At least, not in public. I have my opinions, just as you have yours, but I generally try to keep mine to myself (or give them to my kids, if I can get them to listen), especially with regard to matters about which I know little or zip. I figure: If you aren't willing to serve on the refreshment committee, you don't have the right to show up late at the party and get picky about what's in the punch.
On the other hand, you don't necessarily need a degree in neurobiology to speak with some authority on things that have long been part of your life.
Take, for example, the firefly, a tiny beetle with yellow-striped wings that is flat-out ugly until it lights up. And then it will take your breath away with a beauty that lingers and a smell that won't wash off your hands.
They're called lightning bugs in the South, where I chased them every summer of my childhood, and still do, every chance I get.
I once read about a research team at Tufts University that announced a finding in bioluminescence, the process by which fireflies light up their little bellies like lanterns in the dark to attract mates and charm the socks off humans.
The discovery was not that the bugs light up (we already knew that) but rather, how they seem to control it, turning it off and on like a tiny electric switch. What the researchers found was the role that is played by nitric oxide, a gas that acts as a messenger in carrying out certain tasks.
In humans, for instance, it helps control blood flow to, well, various parts of the body. And in fireflies, it apparently allows oxygen to be used as fuel for tiny flashes of light.
In other words, it's magic -- both in beetles and humans. But it's not always about sex.
I can't speak for lightning bugs, but I can tell you from personal experience, humans light up for lots of reasons.
I don't think it was sex that lit my grandparents up. Not that they didn't like sex. They had 12 children, so they must have liked something. In their latter years, they slept in separate rooms because one snored like a sailor and the other kicked like a mule. But she was forever lit up by his corny jokes, just as he was lit up by the sound of her laughter.
They also slow danced in the kitchen, and kissed a lot for old people with false teeth, which very possibly fanned the flames.
My children, when they were babies, lit up every time they looked at me. Whether it was about me or the food supply I represented, I don't know. But they lit up, time and again, and it lit me up, too.
My old dog, Tuffy, who was not the brightest bulb on four legs, would turn absolutely incandescent at the mention of one word: Walk.
I know people -- so do you -- who light up for the pure joy of discovery, whether it's an answer to a clue in a crossword puzzle, or an odd sock that was missing from the dryer or the ring you inherited from your mother-in-law and accidentally dropped down the sink.
I bet the researchers at Tufts lit up like a pack of Chihuahuas at a Christmas party when they looked into the belly of a lightning bug and figured out what makes it flash.
I hope so. That is how life should be, like a forest full of fireflies on a sultry summer night, all lit up and sparkling and ready for love.
Why do bioluminescent beetles glow in the dark? Joy? Delight? Discovery? Sex? All of the above? Who knows? Maybe it's because they know we're watching and they just love to light us up.
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