Between the flash and the bang, trying to decode why humans are awed by fireworks

Research suggests that the unpredictable, moving sparks are captivating to the human eye, since they is distinct from the reflected light we are used to seeing in routine earthly existence.

Written by Nandini Rathi | New Delhi | Updated: October 14, 2017 3:38 pm
diwali, fireworks, firecrackers, fireworks appeal Cheering crowd and fireworks at New Year’s Eve. (Image for representational purpose)

Human beings’ fascination with fireworks and firecrackers, like with shooting stars and fireflies, is ancient and enduring. Like rollercoasters, they do not seem to get old in spite of being around since at least the eleventh century. Fireworks are the only manifest use of gunpowder — the black powder invented in medieval China — the military use of which was phased out two centuries ago. While they have been extensively used in India around Diwali along with other festivals, ceremonies and social events, the booming and blazing gunpowder extravaganza is also an integral part of Tihar in Nepal, Independence Day and Halloween in the United States, Bastille Day in France, Guy Fawkes Day in Britain, Fallas in Spain and the Chinese New Year celebrations, to name just a few. This, in spite of the fact that they are costly, risky and unpredictable with lifetimes no longer than the length of their fuses. Indeed, each of these occasions is followed by a string of conflagrations, injuries and deaths, in addition to heightened concerns about added air pollution in the recent decades. 

What makes fireworks so exciting to so many people? For Jack Kelly, the author of Gunpowder – Alchemy, Bombards & Pyrotechnics and an admirer of fireworks, it is the impermanence and the fleeting quality of the iridescent sparks that makes them so alluring. “A pyrotechnician from the sixteenth century noted that fireworks endure no longer than the kiss of a lover for his lady, if its long,” said Kelly on the NPR, “However spectacular the incandescence, it fades in a moment”. Canadian talk show host Cynthia Loyst thinks fireworks share the explosive quality of human emotions at a crescendo, the kind associated with momentous events like falling in love or the inability to hold back tears. Watching them can be is a full package for thrilling the senses, complete with the feel-good factor of a Dopamine release in the brain. 

Research suggests that the sudden, unpredictable, moving sparks are captivating to the human eye, since this form of light is distinct from the reflected light we are used to seeing in our routine earthly existence. Like rollercoasters, fireworks (and firecrackers, by some extension) offer an exciting mix of pleasure and fear while comforting us with feeling of being ultimately safe. The sweet spot between delight and fear is what makes them a treat to a large number of people. “Unlike [pets and] young children, who are simply overwhelmed by the noise,” explains Dr. Daniel Glaser, director of Science Gallery at King’s College London, in the Guardian, “adults are spooked by the unpredictable gap between the flash and the bang”.

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