Physics on the Farm: Brassica in a Whole New Light

At the farm, we gently wash the vegetables in preparation for the distribution. It’s a meditative process: gently we lay the earth bedecked root crops in the first tub of water. Swish, swish! Swish, swish! One can imagine radish tops as the tail of some exotic koi. One by one, each vegetable in turn, passes through a couple of changes of cool water, so that they’re free of clods and are radiant when you pick them up.

broccoli-leaf-with-water

One afternoon, while washing the collard greens, John noticed that the leaves took on a silvery sheen when submerged. Green above water, silver below. What was going on? The answer is a combination of botany and physics.

Collard Green leaves (as well as the leaves of other Brassica) are covered with a waxy cuticle, a waxy layer that the plant secretes to deter pests from munching its leaves. The waxy cuticle makes the leaf slightly waterproof and that means air bubbles adhere to the surface when the leaf is plunged under water. (Fire ants take advantage of a similar development in their exoskeletons when they make waterproof rafts of themselves to cross rivers or survive floods … but that’s another story!)

But why would a miniscule layer of air look all silvery? This is where the physics comes in.
Light bends when it travels from one medium to another medium of a different density. In the case of our submerged collard green, from the water into the air bubble on the leaf’s surface. When passing from a more dense (water) to a less dense (air) medium, it is possible for the light to get “trapped” in the bubble and not be refracted back out again. This happens if the angle at which the light enters the less dense medium is greater than 48.6 degrees. At that angle, the light entering the air bubble is reflected off the boundary between the air and the water and does not refract – bend or have it’s speed changed enough to pass back through the boundary. This results in what is called ‘total internal reflection’, and we see a silvery surface. Neat, huh?

refractedreflectedrays

For a more detailed explanation of the physics involved see:http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/refrn/u14l3b.cfm

For more on the fascinating fire ant rafts see:http://www.uvm.edu/~cmplxsys/newsevents/pdfs/2011/ant.pdf

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