379. How does radiation trapping work?
Each atom has certain wavelengths of light that it is particularly capable of absorbing and emitting. For mercury, that special wavelength is about 254 nanometer (ultraviolet). For sodium, it is about 590 nanometer (orange-yellow). If you send a photon of the right 590 nanometer light at a sodium atom, there is a good chance that that atom will absorb it, hold it for a few billionths of a second, and then reemit it. The newly reemitted light will probably not be traveling in the same direction as before. Now if you have a dense gas of sodium vapor and send in your special photon of light, that photon will find itself bouncing from one sodium atom to another, like the metal ball in a huge pinball game. The photon will eventually emerge from the gas, but not before it has traveled a very long distance and spent a long time in the gas. It was "trapped" in the sodium vapor. This radiation trapping makes it hard for high-pressure gas discharges to emit their special wavelengths because those wavelengths of light become trapped in the gas.