How fireflies illuminated our understanding of the world

By Noah Steinfeld

In the early 1950s at Johns Hopkins University, William E. McElroy, a young professor, wanted to figure out what makes fireflies glow. He would pay a quarter to children in the Baltimore area for every 100 fireflies they brought him. McElroy was regarded as a curiosity in the community: the stereotype of an eccentric scientist. But what these people didn’t know was that as a result of this research, McElroy would one day create a tool that would revolutionize the way scientists do biological research.

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