Friday, May 22, 2009

Let's Talk About Pictures: Neon

For our May special promotion we are going to take one photo every day and comment on it.  Sounds fun, doesn't it?
     So, I typed the word "neon" into the Google Image Search and it came up with about a thousand pictures of neon signs.  6.7 million pictures of them, actually.  Which tells me a couple of things.  First of all, it tells me that "neon" has come to mean neon signs just like "ink" has come to mean tattoos.  That's fine.  I can deal with that, it is just part of the evolution of culture and language and whatnot.  We will get the linguists right on that.  Right after they are done working on the tube technology.  Anyway, so "neon" means neon signs.  I've learned that from my 6.7 million search results.  The second thing that I have learned is that people care a lot more about colorful signs than they do about chemistry.
     That is bullshit.  Chemistry is super important.  Nothing would exist or work the way they do without the many, many interactions that occur on a regular basis down at the molecular level.  That's a fact.  And even if you concede that point and still refuse to see how awesome and essential chemistry is, think about all the stuff we wouldn't have if some chemist wasn't messing around with some beakers and a bunsen burner somewhere along the way.  TV, rubber tires, makeup, plant food, toothpaste, pantyhose.  Enough for you?  
     Anyway, neon is a noble gas with the atomic number of 10.  It's way on the right side of the periodic table of the elements, which is that giant, strange chart that is always hanging on the wall that you have no idea anything about and can't figure out to save the life of you.  It is found naturally in the air, and that is where it extracted from in order to fill our signs.  And those signs are put in windows of strip malls and bars from Maine to Hawai'i.  And even in Canada.
     So let us talk about the signs, shall we?  I am not a fan of neon signs.  I never have been.  I find them gaudy and unseemly.  Which is fine.  I guess that I am a little bit of a conservative guy.  I suppose that I can understand why they are so popular all the time though.  First of all, they are pretty exciting at a base, animal sort of level.  It is bright color that you can see from 614 miles away on a dark night, letting you know exactly whether or not there is vacancy at that seedy motel.  Plus it's sort of like a magic trick.  I mean, it's air that glows.  And who wouldn't be amazed by that?  
     And neon, probably because it is beautiful and magical, has become an American icon.  Look at any black and white Life magazine picture of Route 66 and tell me that it isn't.  Stand on the strip in Vegas and twirl around like Mary Tyler Moore and tell me that it isn't.  Go into any small town bar and tell me that it isn't.  It is as American as apple pie, or John Deere tractors, or country fried steak.  All of which is pretty amazing for a simple gas that doesn't play well with other elements.  Luckily for us it gets REALLY excited when it gets to interact with electricity.  And luckily for us all those chemists were messing around with it one day.  I guess that you are going to be taking a second look at that periodic table of the elements, won't you?

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