Scientists Say: Luminescence

This word describes a glow that occurs without heat


This crystal jelly glows with the help of a protein that reacts with calcium to emit blue light.

Sierra Blakeley/Wikimedia Commons

Luminescence (noun, “Loo-men-ESS-scents”)

This is the production of light with little or no production of heat. Many common items that produce light, such as light bulbs and matches, do so through incandescence. That’s light produced as a result of heat. But luminescence is light that is produced by a chemical or electrical reaction. This light is produced at lower temperatures — such as those in living organisms. And some organisms, such as jellyfish and fireflies, actually have specialty chemicals that produce light.

Light produced by a living organism is called bioluminescence. When light comes from a chemical reaction, it’s known as chemiluminescence. And light that occurs when an electrical current moves through something is called electroluminescence.

In a sentence

Designers can make the spacesuit for a future Mars mission light up with the help of luminescence. 

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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