Bulb In, Bulb Out

Mag-05lightbulb-t_CA0-articleLarge Andrew Rice in the NYT Magazine:

Over the past few years, in conditions of strict secrecy, a multinational team of scientists has been making a mighty effort to change the light bulb. The prototype they’ve developed is four inches tall, with a familiar tapered shape, and unlighted, it resembles a neon yellow mushroom. Screw it in and switch it on, though, and it blazes with a voluptuous radiance. It represents what people within the lighting industry often call their holy grail, an invention that reproduces the soft luminance of the incandescent bulb — Thomas Edison’s century-old technology — but conforms to much higher standards of energy efficiency and durability. The prototype is supposed to last for more than 22 years, maybe as long as you own your house, so you won’t need to stock up at the supermarket. And that’s fortunate, because one day very soon, traditional incandescent bulbs won’t be available in stores anymore. They’re about to be effectively outlawed.

As a consumer product, light bulbs belong to what one industry executive calls a “low-thought category,” and yet, of late, they’ve become a surprising flash point. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh have denounced the “light-bulb ban” — actually, a new set of federal efficiency regulations that the traditional incandescent can’t meet — as a symbolic case of environmentalist overreaching, and Michele Bachmann invoked it in the Tea Party’s response to the State of the Union. Wherever your political sympathies lie, you may have found yourselves nodding along with Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who has lambasted the harsh glare given off by those “little, squiggly, pigtailed” compact fluorescents. When it comes to making light, a fundamental necessity of human civilization, libertarians and aesthetes are joined in an unlikely alliance. Environmental groups say the complainers are a cranky minority — that consumers will eventually get used to new light — but those in the illumination business can’t afford to be so sanguine.