How to Create the Fireless Firework; a Humbling Scientific Exploration and Thoughtful Relfection on the Michelson-Morley Experiment

Always shirtless and pointing judgmentally, Smokey the Bear has spent the last 71 years blaming the average American for not doing enough to prevent forest fires – I know that's not what he says explicitly, but that's pretty much what he's doing. My experience as a lifelong Californian says otherwise – we could institute every preventative measure in existence and execute them all perfectly, and this place would still burn. But at least he wears pants.

I've seen white ash fall from the sky on a hot day, the world colored red by smoke-filtered sunlight. I've watched mountains glow at night, their peaks aflame, a scene from the climax of an apocalyptic movie. I've seen the world burn more times than I've seen white snow fall from the sky. I've never seen a snowplow in action, but I have seen county workers use enormous earth-moving equipment to create long fire breaks. This picture was taken just a couple weeks ago.

So, as a public service this Fourth of July, I've decided to create the first fireless firework, and am documenting my efforts here in case you ever decide to make your own.

My goal is to create a fountain of brilliantly luminous, non-flammable liquid that will rival the magnificence of a combustible firework. For this, I will use tonic water, because it fluoresces under a black light, and a black light, because tonic water's defining ingredient, quinine, absorbs the UV light emitted by the black light and re-emits it bright-blue, or if you want to get fancy, cyan. The bottle on the right is tap water.

I decided to use tonic water as opposed to dyed water, or water with fluorescent-marker ink added, or liquid scavenged from a glow stick, because overspray from tonic water won't stain everything. Stickiness doesn't have to be an issue either, because diet tonic water glows just as well as the sugary kind.

As an interesting aside, the origin of tonic water is as a medicine, literally as a drinkable tonic. Quinine has been used to treat and prevent malaria for centuries, and is listed on the World Health Organization's Model List of Essential Medicines. The substance is extremely bitter, so British officials stationed in colonies where the disease was endemic would dilute it with soda water and sugar to make it palatable. Eventually, some drunken genius decided to add gin, and the gin and tonic was born.

I designed the following apparatus to begin my quest to replicate the brilliance of fireworks, without the fire:

Before I get to the result, I'm going to digress for a moment and tell you about an extraordinarily important event in scientific history, which I believe will help you better understand the significance of my efforts in creating the fireless firework.

In 1887, two scientists, Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley, conducted an experiment to determine the speed at which Earth propagates through the luminiferous aether, the medium through which it was believed light propagated, and by extension, to prove the existence of such a medium. This has come to be known as the Michelson-Morley experiment – you may have heard it referenced on Jeopardy at some point.

L - Michelson, R - Morley

Just as sound requires a medium to propagate, whether it be air, water, or solid matter (bite down on a pencil and scratch it with your fingernail), 19th century scientists believed light required similar conditions to propagate. An example: we can see the sun, but we cannot hear it (it would be quite loud). Scientists knew its silence was due to the fact that there is no medium in space by which sound can propagate. But we can still see the Sun, and so it made perfect sense, and was universally accepted, that there must be some medium through which light propagates.

This medium was thought to permeate all space. Scientists believed there was a “wind” effect created as Earth passed through the otherwise stationary aether, which buffeted light on Earth just as air will buffet your hand if you hold it out the window of a moving car, even though it may be a windless day.

"AetherWind" by I, Cronholm144. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Before we go further, let's expand on that analogy and explore a hypothetical scenario: Let's say you're out for a drive on a windless day, and you just happen to have two tennis balls. You decide you want to throw one of the tennis balls in your direction of travel because you think it'd go further if you're able to incorporate the velocity of the car into your throw. You're moving at a constant velocity, but don't know exactly how fast because your speedometer is broken. You stick your arm out the window and throw your tennis ball, and are extraordinarily disappointed with the result. From your perspective, it doesn't go very far. Frustrated at the unsatisfactory result, you grab the other tennis ball and fling it directly outward, to the side, perpendicular to your direction of movement. It soars gloriously, not subject to the same onrushing air-resistance force as the forward-thrown tennis ball, and for a moment, all your troubles are forgotten.

If you were a more inquisitive person, you might have thought, “I wonder how fast I was driving based on the behavior of the tennis balls.” That's pretty much what Michelson and Morley set out to discover – how fast Earth propagates through the luminiferous aether based on the behavior of light.

For their experiment, Michelson and Morley built an expensive, innovative apparatus, centered around an extraordinarily precise interferometer invented by Michelson. To minimize outside interference, they worked in a basement, where their apparatus was mounted to a stone slab which floated in an annular trough of mercury.

It would be insulting to their momentous efforts if I were to to present a ridiculously simplified description of their experiment, but I did write a post centered around cat poop last week, and am not above such indignities.

Basically, they sought to show that two beams of light, one pointing in the direction of Earth's movement and the other perpendicular to it, would arrive at destinations equidistant from their respective sources in different spans of time. Their theory was that an aether “headwind,” caused by the Earth's movement through the aether, would buffet the one beam, slowing its progress, while the other would arrive to its destination more quickly, not hampered by the subsequent onrushing “wind.”

Their conclusion? Both beams propagated at equal velocities, as if there was no aether at all. Scientists around the world were baffled and troubled by the result. You'd be baffled too if the tennis balls you threw behaved as if there was no air at all, and as if the movement of your car had no impact on the velocity of the balls. Today, we think it's silly that they would have thought such an aether existed in the first place – the word itself is commonly associated with archaic science.

While commonly referred to as “the most famous failed experiment in history,” this null-result is widely considered to be one of the most important results in the history of science, null or otherwise. Michelson and Morley published their findings in the American Journal of Science, and the ensuing debate commenced a scientific revolution that initiated a line of thinking which led to Einstein's Theory of Relativity and his assertion that light travels at the same velocity in all reference frames.

Today, there are primary and secondary schools, university buildings, national laboratories, and even theaters named after Michelson and Morley, honoring their enormous and numerous contributions to science and humanity. In 1907, Michelson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to precision optical instruments. In my opinion, we should name a holiday after them, or at least a couple aircraft carriers.

So now, if you've stuck with me this far, you might be wondering, what does this have to do with the fireless firework?

Both were failed experiments. The tonic water glows while in the bottle, but when it sprays out it's impossible to see. Very disappointing. I think it would work better if I had more quinine. Government regulations allow no more than 83mg of quinine per liter of tonic water, but the World Health Organization recommends 2100mg per day to effectively treat malaria in an average-sized adult. So, to me that means there's some hard stuff out there, and it probably looks AWESOME under a black light. I've also heard it can be acquired in pill form to treat nighttime leg cramps, so I'm going to investigate that avenue as well and hope the narcs don't come for me while I try to save California from burning this 5th of July.

Or maybe I'll try some other glowing material, like uranium, which is naturally occurring and relatively safe despite its reputation (it only emits alpha radiation, so as long as you don't breath or ingest it you should be fine, probably should wear eye protection as well), and can be purchased on Amazon (read the comments, seriously, they're hilarious).

Anyway, I hope you learned something.

Your loving son,

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