Friday, August 24, 2012


The firefly plays a special role in Japanese culture. It is called hotaru (蛍, ほたる) and we researchers know it from the expression 蛍雪 (けいせつ), or firefly-writing, which refers to diligence in studying (i.e., continue to study even in such poor light as offered by a firefly). For more wordly people, the firefly is the symbol of passionate love.

At least from the 24 April 1185 battle of Dan-no-ura, where the Genji under Minamoto no Yoshitsune, defeated the Heike (Taira), if not from earlier, it is believed that when soldiers are killed in battle, their souls are transformed into fireflies. Therefore, in Japan the view of hotaru is very sentimental and patriotic.

Today the life of scientists is more peaceful, as researchers are no longer killed like Goethe's Faustus when his grant was up or Giordano Bruno when he came up with the mathematical concept of infinity (see glad not to be on the stake), so we can be cheerful when we see fireflies.

I remember when we moved to Lugano, at the city's border, consisting mostly of untended fields. The place did not even have a name yet, it was just the far end of Besso, or Lugano 3, as the postal system prosaically called it with the introduction of zip codes. As kids we only had to run away from the apartment buildings for a few minutes to be in a completely dark environment devoid of any light pollution. The black sky was dotted with infinite stars, but in summer, towards Cortivallo and the lake of Muzzano, we were immersed in a cloud of fireflies. It was a magic experience.

Of course, today as color scientists we are more interested in the spectrum of the firefly. Entomology teaches us that males and females are anatomically different, with the latter having two lateral light sources and the former three adjacent light sources. This means that we have to measure the sexes independently. How can we achieve that?

In his recent paper in Atti della Fondazione Giorgio Ronchi, volume LXVII (2012), number 3, pages 455–458, Paolo Stefanini reports how he accomplished it.

Firefly spectrum, male

The males normally cruise above the fields, while the females are hidden in the grass. When the females want to mate, the crawl to the apex of the grass leaves and wait. A males ready to mate flashes his light and a female flashes back, then they go at it. Therefore, Stafanini first measured the males, then he built a male decoy using LEDs. The decoy allowed him to beat the females out of the bushes, so he could measure them too.

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