Fluorescence versus bioluminescence

As part of my service activities, I regularly participate in a few family scientific outreach events. Some kids that come in from their schools are supervised by their teachers, and some kids are visiting with their parents. The most recent event was at an aquarium. S.O. walked around with the little one and got some funny pictures with them making big-eyes at the larger-than-them fish swimming about. I was stationed as a docent. At this aquarium, like many aquariums, there were some jellyfish. This is where I was stationed. Many a child would come up and ask why some jellies would have bright green colors, and maybe why a comb jelly had rainbow colors. I would explain fluorescence and diffraction in a simplistic way, then they stare for a bit at pretty colors, thank me, and walk off. Maybe they won’t remember that in 15 years, but for a second they got a little smarter. Cool shit.

Now, when a parent walks up with the kids and the kids inevitably ask the “where do the pretty colors come from?” question, the parents will almost always respond with “bioluminescence”. Some jellies do have bioluminescence, but these do not. And I feel like a dick if I contradict the parent in front of their kids. So I let them walk off having bad information. What I don’t understand is that the parents could have read the information blurb about the fluorescence or diffraction responsible for the pretty colors, or ask the person wearing an aquarium docent shirt (me). I’m hoping that the person just didn’t know better and thought they knew, but not knowing the differences between fluorescence, diffraction, and bioluminescence are annoying to me. And then the child asked how bioluminescence occurs and the parent said “they just glow”. I was biting my tongue hard. At a different event, a parent talked about the octopus’s ear hole at the tank I was stationed at. Octopods do allegedly have an ear-like apparatus, but it’s not the funnel. Now the kid thinks the funnel is an ear hole because dad couldn’t be bothered to ask me about it (or read).

In my day-to-day life I ask a lot of questions if I don’t know the answer. More and more I have been coming across people that act like they know, but really don’t. And I think that they don’t know that they don’t know, which is worse to me. This has been happening with my students and collaborators, too. And I never know if it’s okay to correct them/I’m too scared to. So I sit silently and just let them spew incorrect information, and educate other people that believe them. I just wanted to get this off my chest (also, this versus that). That’s it.

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