Geek Trivia: It's not easy being Wint-O-Green

What substance in Wint-O-Green Life Savers makes these candies more prone to triboluminescence?

Editor's note: The Trivia Geek is on extended leave, but he did get off his slacker butt long enough to pull this Classic Geek, which originally ran on Sept. 2, 2003 and then again on March 16, 2004, from the archives. It's also the Trivia Geek's personal favorite question of all time.

Sir Francis Bacon is one of the more interesting characters in the history of scientific thought, especially considering just how inaccurate most of his scientific work turned out to be. A product of 16th-century England who served as a controversial functionary under both Elizabeth I and James I, Bacon was an influential, if erratic, scholar and philosopher.

While he rejected the teachings of Aristotle, which were the academic standard of the day, and dabbled in the now-refuted disciplines of alchemy and astrology, Bacon nonetheless set out a basic philosophy of scientific thought, which eventually led to the formal creation of the Royal Society of London, the preeminent scientific body of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

But Bacon's work wasn't all bad. Among his contributions to science was his early work on triboluminescence, the creation of light by crushing or deforming solid objects. Yes, boys and girls, this is the legitimate scientific phenomenon that explains why Wint-O-Green Life Savers candies produce sparks when you chew or crush them.

Bacon was the first scientist to formally record this effect, which he did in 1605 after observing that cane sugar gave off light when crushed. The tribo part of triboluminescence comes from the Greek root meaning "to rub," but the word wouldn't appear in connection with the phenomenon until 1889.

While this is all fine and good, it doesn't explain how the Life Saver—particularly the Wint-O-Green Life Saver—phenomenon became so popular. It's because there really is something special about Wint-O-Green, something that sets it triboluminescently apart from other sugar-based candies, even other Life Savers.

WHAT SUBSTANCE IN WINT-O-GREEN LIFE SAVERS MAKES THESE CANDIES MORE PRONE TO TRIBOLUMINESCENCE?

What substance in Wint-O-Green Life Savers makes this particular brand and flavor of candy more prone to triboluminescence, the creation of light by friction (often associated with crushing, scratching, or even chewing solid objects)?

It's all a matter of taste. The methyl salicylate flavoring—otherwise known as oil of wintergreen—is the culprit behind Wint-O-Green's comparatively unusual triboluminescence. To understand how, one must first understand the process behind the Life Saver spark phenomenon.

At the heart of any Life Saver is crystalline sugar, and chewing the candy shatters this structure. When the sugar crystals break, some molecules are left ragged or incomplete, freeing some electrons, which need a place to go.

These electrons in turn collide with nitrogen molecules (which conveniently make up about 78 percent of our atmosphere), imparting the nitrogen with excess energy. The nitrogen, wanting no part of that energy, emits it as light.

The catch is that the majority of this nitrogen-emitted light falls into the ultraviolet range. Only a small percentage of the total energy shed shows up as visible light.

The methyl salicylate in Wint-O-Green Life Savers alters this equation because it functions like a phosphor in a fluorescent light, absorbing the shorter-wavelength ultraviolet photons and converting them to higher-wavelength visible photons. Specifically, oil of wintergreen converts UV into blue visible light, accounting for the characteristic blue sparks associated with chewing Wint-O-Green Life Savers.

Get ready for the Geekend

The Trivia Geek's blog has been reborn as the Geekend, an online archive of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant—unless you're a hardcore geek with a penchant for science fiction, technology, and snark. Get a daily dose of subcultural illumination by joining the seven-day Geekend.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia—namely, when the Trivia Geek gets back from his extended leave. (To read the original quibble from this article, see Listing A.)

Falling behind on your weekly Geek fix?

Check out the Geek Trivia Archive, and catch up on the most recent editions of Geek Trivia.

Test your command of useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic's Geek Trivia newsletter. Automatically sign up today!

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.