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One of the best references on the subject is the Digital Western Research Laboratory paper titled Characterization  of Organic Illumination Systems.

Be sure to checkout the March 1993 issue of the Journal of Chemical Education for the article Tested Demonstrations: Sodium D Line Emission from Pickles by George L. Gilbert.  (Volume 70, Number 3, pages 250-251)

Writer David George Gordon has written an interesting article titled Mad or Rad: Electric Pickles.  This story was part of the ABC News web site, but is no longer available.

Let's Hear It for Pickle Power!

Several years ago I had a student named Daegan who kept bugging me with the same comment every time that I did a demonstration for the class.  Basically, he said that he would not be happy until I set my tie on fire.  After months of hearing this comment repeated, I finally decided to make his wish come true.  I designed a new demonstration where I took my ugliest tie, soaked it in rubbing alcohol, and then set it ablaze.  Daegen was not impressed, however, because the tie was still intact after the fire went out.  He wanted the tie to be burned to a crisp.  I, on the other hand, wanted to teach some science.   (As I tell all of my students, please do not try this at home!)

Obviously, there is some sort of deception going on with my tie experiment.  Without revealing my secret, let's just say that the alcohol was not what it appeared to be.  This tie trick does, however, lead me to the one demonstration that my students seem to remember for life.  This one also has a bit of magic to it.  And, because it involves something known as a suicide plug, I am not going to tell you exactly how to do it.  In other words, don't try this one at home, either.

Every school year, my last demo is always what my students refer to as the “electrocution of a pickle”.  Basically, this works on a principle very similar to that of frying someone in an electric chair.  Just put a current through something juicy that conducts electricity and watch it sizzle. 

What is very unusual about the pickle is that is doesn't just cook.  Within a short period of time, steam starts to escape out the sides and, amazingly, it starts to light up like a light bulb.  Yes, you read that correctly.  It emits light.  Yellow light, to be specific.  And the smell…  Let's just say that the word bad does not describe the scent well enough!

Now, I would be lying if I told you that I came up with this trick on my own.  I didn't.  In fact, I first saw it demonstrated at a Physics Teacher training course that I was taking back in 1991.  I was captivated by what I was watching and knew that my students would find equal fascination with it.  That night I went home and built my own apparatus to perform the demo. 

Unfortunately, my building principal did not approve of the idea (can anybody say lawsuit???) and forbid me from doing the demo for a couple of years.  When a newly hired teacher down the hall from me started doing it, followed by Mr. Wizard performing the electrocution on the Nickelodeon channel, I convinced the administration to let me do it. 

What amazes me most about this demo is that no one ever explained to me what it was supposed to prove.  It just looked cool.  Who cares if it the glowing pickle really ever taught any concept?  Again, it just looked cool!  Well, I quickly found out that my students really did care. 

They thought that they had finally stumped me, but they hadn't.  Every good teacher learns that they must be ready for anything, and I was.  I gave them some cockamamie story about how it all tied into Niel Bohr’s model of the atom.  It seemed to me that the electricity flowing into the pickle excited the electrons in the sodium ions that made up the pickle's salt content.  When the electrons fell back down to a stable orbital, the yellow light was emitted.  It all made perfect sense to me because I remembered doing flame tests in college chemistry where sodium emitted a similar yellow light. 

In plain English, this means that you add energy to throw something up and then you get the energy back when it comes back down.  To prove this, just take a rock and throw it straight up in the air.  You have to add energy to throw the rock upwards.  When it comes down and hits you in the head, you will quickly realize that it just transferred that energy back to you.

Honestly, this did not take much thought on my part to figure out.  It just seemed fairly obvious to me.  Well, it turns out that scientists have been working feverishly to solve the mystery of the glowing pickle. 

I recently learned that two important (yeah, right!) papers have been published on the topic. 

Seven researchers at Digital Computers did the first study in April of 1989.  Their findings were just amazing.  They concluded that Kosher dill pickles were the best because they had the highest salt content.  Also, they determined that pickles would not make good light bulbs because they only gave off yellow light and that they smelled really, really bad.  Duh!  They published their results in a paper titled “Characterization of Organic Illumination Systems”.  There is nothing as effective as using big words in a publication title so that no one can understand it.  (Do you think that they were trying to fool their bosses into thinking that they were performing serious science?)

The second set of findings was released by a team of four scientists in 1993 and appeared in the Journal of Chemical Education.  Their findings?  Very simple: The light emitted by the pickle was nearly identical to that released by the sodium atom.  Just as I had suspected.
Don’t get me wrong.  I am not trying to diminish the need for serious scientific studies.  Yet, I can't help but get a small chuckle when I see how much time and energy went into these projects.  I have a hunch that they were also laughing while writing these studies up.  Sometimes there is a need for making science fun and interesting. 

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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