Pick Of The Week: Fluorescent Rocks

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Under ultraviolet light, some minerals glow brilliantly. Franklin, N.J. is home to 90 fluorescing minerals, and was decreed the "Fluorescent Mineral Capital of the World." Science Friday visted two mineral museums in the area to learn about the region's unusual geology and to see rocks light up.

IRA FLATOW, host:

And Flora Lichtman is here with us. Hi.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi.

FLATOW: Our Video Pick of the Week. What have you got for us this week?

LICHTMAN: This week we travel to what might as well be the eighth natural wonder of the world, which is in New Jersey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: New Jersey. You know what they say in Jersey? What exit is that on, right?

LICHTMAN: Well, it's about 50 miles northwest of New York City, and it's the town of Franklin, which has been decreed by the New York State Senate the fluorescent mineral capital of the world. Yes, I didn't...

FLATOW: I'm speechless.

LICHTMAN: I know, right, because for me, I didn't know that minerals fluoresce...

FLATOW: Yes.

LICHTMAN: ...let alone that there was a capital...

FLATOW: Of the world. And it's not in California or something, right?

LICHTMAN: Right. It's in Jersey. So it turns out that some minerals, and in this area of the world - in this area of Jersey there's actually 90 of them, that if you put them under ultraviolet light, they'll glow in these really brilliant colors: reds, greens, orange, blue. It's pretty amazing because they look just like normal rocks...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...you know, big boulders. And then you flip off the lights and you turn on this UV light, and they just zam.

FLATOW: There's - and you know it's hard to describe on the radio what a zam looks like. So the best thing to do is go to our website at sciencefriday.com, where Flora has gone underground, right? Gone underground, and these gorgeous, fluorescent minerals - and she's done a tour on our website, go to Pick of the Week on the left side there and you can download it on our podcast there. And it's beautiful. It's...

LICHTMAN: Yeah, it's really beautiful. Annette Heist, the senior producer for SCIENCE FRIDAY, and I got a tour of the mine. So they've discovered a lot of the minerals here because there are two zinc mines in the area, which are now defunct. But at one of these museums that we visit in Franklin, in this area, you can go actually see the mine and how it works, and you can see some of these fluorescent minerals sort of in the walls of the mine, which is pretty amazing too.

But you know, the big mystery - there are few mysteries: One is why is this area so geologically unusual, and it seems to have something to do with black smokers about 1.5 billion years ago, because they just spew out really a lot of different things.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And then, you know, the other question is why do these guys fluoresce. And there's some controversy about even why they light up. One idea is that impurities are sort of doing it. And I know for a fact that manganese, this element, is causing some of these minerals to light up.

But there are 90 - and the geologist I talked to, Earl Verbeek, said, you know, we don't really know exactly why all of these are lighting up.

FLATOW: Love the mystery.

LICHTMAN: I know.

FLATOW: I love the mystery. So you can take the tour of the mine - it's a mine, it's an old abandoned mine, underground, and that - and you actually find tours down there looking at it at the end.

LICHTMAN: Yes.

FLATOW: The ooh-ahs.

LICHTMAN: Yes, the oohs and aahs.

FLATOW: Oohs and aahs at the end. And, you know, it's the kind of thing where you - when you turn off the lights and you shine an ultraviolet on it, it's amazing.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, it is.

FLATOW: (Unintelligible) how bright they get to be.

LICHTMAN: Really, really bright. You could, you know, think of a black light poster but...

FLATOW: Yeah. Exactly.

LICHTMAN: ...in a rock...

FLATOW: And there you have it in a nutshell, in a rock. Go to our website at sciencefriday.com, and up there at SCIENCE FRIDAY's Video Pick of the Week, Flora's got it up there, and you can take a look at it. Tell us what you think. Leave us a comment on the website or on our Facebook page and - or tweet it to us.

Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

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