Day 6 - Shambles Advent

Blog in a Teacup by Dr Helen Czerski

Day 6 – @SanDelinos

Every day until Christmas Dr Helen Czerski will be finding some cool, hidden science in pics of people’s every day lives. To get involved, tweet your pic to @helenczerski and @cosmicshambles with the hashtag #ShamblesAdvent

Today’s picture was sent in by @SanDelinos.  I have to say I prefer the plant to the wallpaper!  But it did make me think about the colour green, and how ubiquitous it is in the natural world.   Think about all the plants you know, all of nature’s sunlight harvesters: trees, grass, geraniums, cacti, rose bushes, coriander and more.  They come from all over the globe, and from a huge variety of environments, and it’s astonishing when you think about it that just one molecule is doing the heavy lifting in every case: chlorophyll.   It’s a reasonably large molecule (around 130 atoms) so there are a few variants, but the core of it is the same in all cases: a magnesium atom nestled in a structure of nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon. 

We know that plants store sunlight and that they’re almost all green, so we associate the colour green with photosynthesis (the process of converting using sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars).  But actually, green is the one colour that isn’t being used by the plant.  The chlorophyll molecules use almost all the red and blue light to build sugars, so those colours just disappear into the plant.  But the green light either passes straight through the leaf or it gets scattered from the surface – the leaf barely touches it.  That’s what we see: the optical leftovers.  So next time you walk through a lush green garden, or you admire a vast lawn, bear in mind that we only get this fabulous verdant colour because the plant isn’t perfectly efficient – it doesn’t use all the light it receives.  But that’s fine by me – our planetary ecosystem gets sugar from the red and the blue light, and we get beauty from the green.

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Dr Helen Czerski is a physicist, first and foremost, but she’s acquired a few other labels along the way: oceanographer, presenter, author and bubble enthusiast. A regular on The Cosmic Shambles Network, she has also presented a number of acclaimed documentaries for the BBC and her first book, Storm in a Teacup, which looked at the physics of every day things, was a bestseller. Recently she was awarded the prestigious William Thomson, Lord Kelvin Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics.

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