The Most Spectacular Firefly

We’re drawn to animals that shine their own light. For one, it’s a group effort. /

And God said, "Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth." And it was so. (Gen. 1:14–15, NIV)

Light has a way of marking things. Fireflies, though not grand light sources like the moon or Venus, nevertheless illuminate warm evenings with their delicate glow. When I saw them as child, I knew that green summer had begun and it seemed endless to my small self. The golden light of fireflies meant more daylight to stay up late, watermelon in the backyard, and more frequent visits from my grandmother. These living lights, suspended like low-hanging constellations, were signs that marked my seasons and days and years.

Fireflies still signal summer in my internal calendar, though summer seems much briefer to me now. I see them blinking and hovering near the hydrangeas, and wonder about a God who made an outwardly plain bug with this extravagant ability. The scientific name for this is bioluminescence—the ability of a living thing to produce light. It is something that has captivated us humans for millennia. In our current world riddled with manmade lights that fill even the palms of our hands, these creatures that generate their own light in darkest nights or deepest oceans betray a genius far greater than our own.

In her new book, Silent Sparks, ecologist Sara Lewis describes the astonishing intricacies of firefly physiology and behavior. Biologists have discovered that light from these glowing creatures is made by a specific enzyme known as luciferase (from the Latin word lucifer, which means "bringer of light"). Luciferase ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 50 / June 9, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from June 09, 2016

    Issue 50: Lightning bugs, beating hearts, and golden spirals. /

  2. Mysteries of a Beating Heart

    We don’t really know how a heartbeat sparks to life. /

  3. The Eagle, the Shell, and the Sunflower

    The Golden Spiral appears all over nature. /

  4. Bright Angels

    “When I was growing up, / they were lightning bugs.” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 50: Links to amazing stuff.

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