The element of neon - atomic number 10 in the periodic table - has become a favourite element of mine and in my work on the Shine project - and increasingly elsewhere.
It all began with the Twin Dome in St Andrews when Aleks, Stephen and I all felt that the main, curved outside wall could do with a bit of brightening up. The most obvious approach to this as far as I was concerned had to be the emission spectrum of one of the elements. Throughout the Shine project spectroscopy has been the basis of all my work - what could be more amazing than the fact that light is actually all neatly formed into a series of unmistakable codes: codes that can be read in the light of all the stars and galaxies that we observe in the night's sky.
By the time we came to make use of the Twin Dome I was very well advanced in my work with spectroscopy and the distinct patterns of so many of the spectra of the elements. I felt that a really large spectrum of a fundamental element was what was needed but obviously there's the look of the thing to consider as well. So Hydrogen would be my first choice but, in the visible portion of the spectrum, we are only talking about 4 rather lonely emission lines - not very exciting and not something you would particularly notice from a distance.
Others sprang to mind especially in the early part of the periodic table which I am most familiar with - such as oxygen and nitrogen. Still not very many lines though, nothing much to look at. So I thought what is the first element where the number of emission lines - and the look of the thing - really starts to get interesting? The answer is atomic number 10 and the element of neon: 46 very well distributed lines from a frequency of about 422 nm to 692 nm. And, after all, it was neon that we were talking about so why don't we call the work a 'neon sign'. It was definitely a sign of neon and, going one step further, why not call it the largest neon sign in the world.
So we did and since then, and in one form or other, we've had two more attempts at a representation of neon that we call the biggest neon sign in the world: first on a roof in New Mexico and then back at St Andrews but with 100 volunteers to carry the thing around the playing fields.