Why Stuff Works

Because who cares how?

Q: Why can't you get a tan from fluorescent lighting?

A: Fluorescent lighting. It’s the bane of the working world. Proven to cause epileptic seizures (but only in that percentage of the population that had a grand time with acid in the 70s), general depression, and pasty white skin. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit at your desk or wander through Wal-mart and get your tan on?

Scientists with pathetic doctoral degrees from MIT and Cambridge would have you believe that fluorescent lights do not emit the full spectrum of UV-A and UV-B light necessary for tans, and then they’d go on to talk some gobbledy gook about argon and mercury vapor. But I’m here to tell you they’ve spent too much time around the chemical beaker. Because the reality is that our lack of tanning ability comes from the raging controversy regarding the subspecies H. Sapiens neandertalensis, otherwise known as your garden variety Neanderthal.

For those of you who haven’t had the 4-credit course in Physical Anthropology that has made me an expert on the topic, once upon a time, humans looked a lot more monkey-like. As Figure 1 will demonstrate, we had funny googly eyes and a vestigial tail. While the fossil record offers some complex findings and creates debates like the “Mitochondrial Eve” or “Out of Africa” approach vis a vis the “Multiregional” approach, the real issue that sends scholars all over the world into a towering rage (other than the debate about whether Michel Foucault shaved his head or was actually bald) is the question of the Neanderthal.

The species designation sapiens for the Homo genus is generally established to have begun around 130 kya. This includes the Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies as well as the neandertalensis. Neandertalensis is the subspecies designation of a group of large-brained hominids whose evolutionary origins are located in the Homo erectus populations of Northern Europe. Possessing unusually large cranial cavities (1200-1750 cc, much larger than the 1100 – 1400cc of modern humans), clearly demarcated postzygomatic arches, robust musculoskeletal structures and short limbs, the Neanderthals were well adjusted to the ice-age climatic conditions of their day. Discoveries of a neandertalensis specimen at Kebra Cave, Israel included a hyoid bone, and scientific assessments of the endocranial areas of several Neanderthal specimens have resulted in general agreement that Neanderthals were capable of speech and language.

But where exactly did the Neanderthals go? Two options are commonly accepted: a) that Neanderthals died out as a result of climatic changes and warmer temperatures or b) that Neanderthals interbred with Homo sapiens sapiens to create a more genetically diverse human population. But the unknown reality is that Neanderthals went into healthcare. Initially, around the time that the sapiens sapiens migration brought Neanderthals into contact with the modern human population, Neanderthals determined that their larger brains and higher intelligence made them the perfect agents for a wide-scale deception of the human race. Putting their big brains and Mousterian tool culture together, they created the progenitor of the field of modern medicine. Imagine the following scene: A human wearing a big lion head mask trips over some rock stairs and gets poked in the eyes with the fangs. Sobbing and weeping, he returns home to find himself unable to see the entrance to his own cave. Without shelter or comfort, he wanders into dangerous territory, until he is found by one of the Neanderthals, who takes him to the Neanderthal “doctor”. Said doctor squirts some semi-putrid water in his eyes, causing stinging and pupil dilation, then charges him the outrageous fee of two haunches of wildebeest, and sends him home. Because the human is completely incapable of imagining that nothing had changed, he convinces himself that the doctor has cured his injury. Repeat scenarios over hundreds of thousands of years, and you have the basis for the modern HMO.

The Neanderthals are a little-known people. Due to their sneaky ability to shift physical appearance from overly muscular and dark-skinned to anything within the spectrum of human appearance (they utilize such things as vegan diets to lose inordinate amounts of weight and muscle and clever costuming to look just like small brained human beings), they cannot often be properly identified. Several ethnographic studies undertaken in great secrecy have revealed that the modern Neanderthals are able to identify each other based on one basic feature of modern life: fluorescent light. Since the introduction of the fluorescent light in 1927, Neanderthal scientists have used their superior intelligence to develop a “vaccination” that they have made a requirement for every human child beginning kindergarten (visible on Health Department records as a DPT shot). This vaccination prevents a complex chemical reaction between the 254nm UV light, the paint of the fluorescent tube, and human skin, which would normally create a gradual darkening of the epidermis, which humans would then call “tanning”.

There are several reasons for this. First, Neanderthals place a certain cultural value on darkened skin (the highest members of Neanderthal society tend to possess the swarthiest skin tone) and resent human attempts to mimic this method of dividing social groupings. Second, Neanderthals are touchy about their origins in the wilds of Northern Europe, so they appreciate a certain irony in denying humans the ability to tan. Furthermore, Neanderthals are able to identify each other in common settings like offices and malls based on their own changing skin tone vs. that of their co-workers and fellow shoppers.

And that, in a nutshell, is why humans can’t get tan from fluorescent lights.

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