My office door THUMPs as Richard Feder barrels in. Vinnie’s half out of his chair with his fists balled up but he settles back down when he sees who it is. “Moire, I gotta question.”
“Afternoon, Mr Feder. What brings you to the 12th floor of the Acme Building?”
“My dentist’s up here. They gave me these really dark glasses for when they aimed a bright light in my mouth to harden something in there so I wondered why’re they so dark an’ what about those glasses that can’t make up their minds?”
“Well, Mr Feder, as usual you’ve asked a jumbled question. Let’s see. The answers all boil down to what light is made of and what the glasses are made of.”
“I thought it was photon particles, Sy. The light, I mean.”
“It is, Vinnie, but photons only act like particles when they’re emitted and when they’re absorbed. In between, they act like waves. Dark glasses are all about photons as waves. The simplest case is the plain dark glasses.”
“Yeah, Moire, simple’s good.”
“They’re black because they’ve been doped with black chemicals. If your glasses are actually made of glass, the manufacturer probably dumped iron and sulfur into the melt. When heated those elements combine to form black iron sulfide particles spread throughout the mass. If the glasses are plastic, the manufacture mixed black dye into the formula. Either way, the more dopant added, the blacker the product and the fewer waves make it through the lens.”
“Great, Sy, but how come the black? I remember that Sun-spectrum poster that Al had up in his shop once. Lotsa sharp dark lines that Cathleen said were from different elements absorbing little slices of that rainbow background. But there were plenty of colors left over to make white.”
“Impressive memory, Vinnie. That was what, three years ago? Anyhow, those absorption lines come from separated atoms floating in the hot gas of the solar atmosphere. Quantum mechanics says that an isolated atom has a characteristic set of electron configurations, each with its own energy level. Say an incoming photon meets a gas atom. If the photon’s energy just matches the difference between the atom’s current configuration and some other configuration, suddenly the atom’s in the new configuration and no more photon. It has to match just right or no absorption. Those sharp lines come from that selectivity, OK?”
“So how do you get total black from selective atoms?”
“You don’t. You get black from less‑selective molecules and larger structures. Atoms right next to each other bring entanglement into the action — which electron is where on which atom? Many more configurations, many more differences between energy level pairs, many more lines that can overlap to make broad absorption bands. Suppose you’ve got some glass or plastic doped to have a single band sucking up everything between orange and green. Shine white light into it. Only red light and blue light come through. We see that as purple, a color that’s not even in the spectrum. Make that band even broader like it is with metals and rocks and iron sulfide; nothing gets through.”
“Then how do they do those glasses that get dark or light depending? The factory can’t put chemicals in but take ’em out temporary‑like when you walk inside.”
“Good point. In fact, the glass composition stays the same, sort of. The factory puts in chemicals that change their structure depending on the light level. If you dope optical glass with silver chloride crystallites, for instance, UV light can energize a chloride’s electron up to where it can leave the chloride and be captured by a silver ion. Do that with enough silver ions in the crystallite and you have a tiny piece of silver metal. Enough pieces and the glass looks gray, at least until heat energy joggles things back to the silver chloride ground state. For plastic lenses they use a subtler strategy — large‑ish molecules with spread‑out electron structures. UV light energizes an electron to another level and the molecule twitches to an opaque alternate form that relaxes when heat shakes it down.”
“Heat, huh? No wonder mine don’t work so good on the beach.”
~~ Rich Olcott
2 thoughts on “Dark Glasses”
Thanks for the easy to understand explanation about how light acts as both a particle and waves. My dentist uses a UV light to bond items on teeth. The orange filter is to protect her eyes from the light. Thanks for the refresher on spectroscopy and light energy levels. I thought it was lack of UV, not “heat shaking down” energy levels that causes lenses to lighten. One pair of my transition lenses was improperly processed. When leaning over a hot stove, one of my lenses suddenly crazed. I sent them to my physic’s professor son, who was glad to receive them.
The UV-initiated excitation and “heat shake” relaxation processes run concurrently. Without continued UV input to darken unexcited molecules or crystallites, heat’s random molecular jiggling allows excited molecules (or silver and chlorine atoms) to relax into their lower-energy transparent states. More heat, such as on the beach, speeds the relaxation process and tips the equilibrium towards transparency.
Heat crazing is a much larger-scale process than the molecule-level process by which the color transition operates. A properly manufactured lens has been carefully annealed to reduce craze-generated strain within the glass. Like the middle layer in a windshield’s glass-plastic-glass sandwich, eyeglass lens coatings providentially serve to hold the pieces together in case of a failure such as you experienced. I’m so glad your eyes escaped damage.