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Down the Tubes

Tycho Sleator, associate professor of physics at NYU, explains why fluorescent light is so unpleasant.

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Why are fluorescent lights so prevalent in offices?
When you turn on a normal incandescent bulb, 93 percent of the energy it’s emitting is in invisible infrared radiation. So they make a lot more heat, and you’re paying your electrical bill for that. Fluorescent light is cheaper, basically.

Why is fluorescent light so annoying?
The lower the temperature of a light source, the more low-frequency red light it emits. A regular bulb is a lot colder than the sun, and so it emits mostly red light. People are used to that. Fluorescent lights have a broader spectrum, with more blues. They’re more antiseptic.

If the lights are actually different colors, why don’t we notice that?
Your brain smooths out the discrepancies so that you don’t think things are changing color all the time. This is what causes problems for digital cameras. They don’t compensate, so you have to change the setting to tell them you’re indoors with incandescent light.

This isn’t what you study, though.
I use light from lasers to push atoms around. One practical application is quantum computation, which would theoretically allow you to factor really large prime numbers really quickly. That would let you encrypt messages in ways that can’t be broken. So organizations like the NSA are extremely interested.

How do you keep the light out of your eyes in the morning?
It doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is the garbage trucks.


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