Light Thoughts

Last night, for one reason or another, I decided on the spur of the moment to head to the beach, in order to wander there with the darkness clinging to me while I faced the bracing wind and cleared my head of many things. Although not quite like walking, for example, the Northumbrian coastline, even this part of the Pacific can be wonderfully restless, rugged, and alive when there are strong storms in the air, as is the case right now in the area.

santa monica led ferris wheel

On my walk, heading Northwest, I saw the Santa Monica Pier in the distance, with its new (as of last Summer) Ferris Wheel sporting some 160000 LEDs (I read this – did not count them) and putting on a light show. It is interesting to look at for a number of reasons. They’ve programmed in a lot of patterns that it cycles through, some of which are nice, but the most interesting thing to me (and not depicted in my snaps) was the fact that from far away it looks utterly unreal. There is something about the light produced by the LEDs that (to my eyes at least) is very different from the surrounding lights of the rest of the pier, and of the nearby streets and so forth. As a result, from a distance, the Ferris wheel looks like it has been photoshopped onto a picture of Santa Monica by someone who’s not very good at colour matching. I don’t mean this is as a criticism. It is just interesting how one’s eye treats the different kinds of lights.

Also notable is that at a remove, the same light-type difference means that it is hard to judge how far away it is. Is it a weird secondary image on one’s glasses? Is it some huge thing over in the mountains far behind toward Malibu, or is it something the half mile away at the pier? You can’t see any of this in my photo (above) since I did not think to take one of that wider view, I’m afraid. Sorry about that. (I took the rough snaps you above and below see with my phone (no, no, not an iphone, just a phone – call me old-fashioned; I think I’m the last non-iphone user in LA) largely so I could test out doing a mobile upload to facebook, just for fun.)

Come to think of it, I think that this business of how the wheel’s lights appear is related to the arguments about those somewhat distracting LED billboards that are appearing over the city. It is clear that (especially when seeing them for the first time) you can’t help but look at them because they are unbelievably clear and bright and legible and so you wonder how they do it, but I wonder if the fact that it is a different kind of light (compared to all that is around them) that makes your eyes latch on to them as well – When you should be looking where you are going while driving, cycling or walking.

Oh, I do like the fact that the wheel and its lights are solar powered, although I should emphasize here (a lot of people seem to have missed this fact) that the previous Ferris Wheel (with more traditional -and no less pretty in their own way- lights) was also solar powered. This one is using the same infrastructure, I’ve been led to understand. Be sure to note, by the way, that both the solar cells and the LEDs (light emitting diodes) of the wheel are excellent examples of the results of (relatively) modern research in condensed matter physics – and the deliberate employment of the laws of quantum mechanics – entering your every day life. (Worth keeping in mind when you read things from me and others where we worry about quantum issues in various physics contexts. It is all very relevant.)

The older Ferris Wheel was taken down and sold off last year. Here’s a popular shot that I took a few years ago of the pier with the older wheel (not lit):

santa monica pier 2006

Here are a few more of the patterns the new wheel showed while I stood there. Sorry about the quality – As I said I was just playing around and not really focusing on taking very decent shots (although I was a tad more careful on the main one above, and rather like the finished result).

santa monica led ferris wheel santa monica led ferris wheel santa monica led ferris wheel santa monica led ferris wheel santa monica led ferris wheel

I wonder how much energy this system stores? I ask because we’ve been in the midst of a series of rainstorms for the last few days (yay!) and have not seen a lot of sun. Will the wheel go dark if we don’t get much sun soon, or is it very efficient at storage and also getting energy from overcast skies?

Overall, it’s quite impressive.


(Yes, in case you were wondering, I did spend some time thinking that if I could work magnetism into the post somehow I could maybe use the pun Ferrous Wheel… That’ll have to wait for another day.)

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5 Responses to Light Thoughts

  1. Jude says:

    The next obvious step would be for you to photograph it while riding it. Every year when the carnival came to town, my grandmother and I rode the Ferris wheel and she told me about the time she was one car away from the top when it caught on fire (it was wooden). Everyone was rescued and it didn’t cure her from our annual trip, but I think about her Ferris wheel fire every time I ride one. I love the photos (non-iPhone and all). Wouldn’t you assume that they’d have a backup system that tied the wheel into the electrical grid if required?

  2. Christine says:

    Hi Clifford,

    Your pictures are very good (and LEDs are interesting by themselves), but being quite sincere here, I find such lights extremely unpleasant if exposed (so shockingly evident) nearby a beach!

    Close to where I live (about 2 hrs driving), there are many beautiful tropical beaches, still relatively untouched by civilization. (Of course in Brazil there are many urban beaches, but given that my country has the biggest coast in the world, you still can find innumerable relatively untouched jewels. I don’t know how long all of them will be preserved, beaches should be untouched, natural places, but who knows what will happen…) I wonder whether you can find “relatively untouched” beaches nearby where you live? Do you often visit them to “reboot” your mind?

    PS- Here are some pictures of the beaches that I have mentioned.

  3. Philip Shane says:

    i wonder if the odd effect comes from the extreme difference in color temperature of the LED’s (very blue temp?) and the other lights on the pier (are they sodium? mercury? perhaps a much warmer color temp?).

  4. Philip Shane says:

    or (just riffing) maybe it’s because of the highly resolution appearance of the images the LED’s can present. We’re not used to seeing such detail in large industrial lights, usually they would be fairly “low” resolution like neon or, at best, stadium jumbotrons.

    so we use two clues to judge the distance of an illuminated sign: it’s resolution, and it’s brightness. and the LED’s are brighter and higher resolution than anything we’ve seen before, so they seem unnaturally close.

    ergo… we must adapt. evolution moves onward!

  5. Clifford says:

    Yes… the latter is what I wondered too.. The detail throws you. That is the main problem with the LED billboards I think. But I think the colour issue is a contributor too.

    So them continuing to put the billboards near high traffic areas will indeed help with your evolutionary idea…. 🙂