The Plasma Project

Even though I am a science major, understanding Walter Gekelman’s presentation was incredibly difficult. I’ve heard the phrase “plasma” mentioned before, but it was never really explained to me. After Dr. Gekelman’s lecture, I was only vaguely more informed about the nature of this fourth state of matter. I learned that matter becomes plasma when it is heated and the plasma forms rope-like structures that can interact with each other and can be measured and plotted when under the influence of a magnetic field. This was still confusing to me, so I decided to learn a little bit more about how plasma works. I found that plasma is essentially a collection of charged molecules that interact based on the electrical fields created by the charges. This electrical field connects the molecules, in a way, such that they will move around and react to their environment together. Plasma can exist in many places throughout the solar system and even on the Earth. For example, the Aurora Borealis is created by plasma. The sun releases plasma and when the ions interact with the atmosphere the molecules in the atmosphere are excited and when they return to a neutral state, they release light in the visible range, producing the colorful display. 

The Aurora Borealis created by plasma interacting with the atmosphere.

A part of the discussion with Dr. Gekelman involved going through the idea for a bioart project that could be created involving his work. I thought of a few ideas that could be carried out to both showcase the beauty of the graphs of the ropes of plasma created by adding a magnetic field and explain some of the science behind it.

My first idea is and interactive piece in which participants can change the positioning and interaction of plasma waves simulated by a computer based on some of Dr. Gekelman’s actual data by changing the magnetic field acting on the system. The exhibit could be carried out in a room and the plasma ropes can be projected into the space. Participants can wear 3-D glasses and body suits fitted with motion detectors. The participants themselves are the magnetic field, so as they move around, the magnetic field changes. A computer using a program based on Dr. Gekelman’s research can analyze these changes and can change the projection of the plasma ropes accordingly. This exhibit would be carried out in a very similar way that the Bird Song Diamond piece that we covered in class in which the exhibit itself responds to the participants. This exhibit emphasizes the fact that the plasma moves together and it affected by its local environment, especially the magnetic field, and, in a way, simulates what occurs in the Large Plasma Device in Dr. Gekelman’s lab.

Plasma waves created due to collision of plasma ropes in a magnetic field in Dr. Gekelman’s research.

Another idea that I had involves Dr. Gekelman’s love of fish, which was incorporated into the project proposed at the LASER seminar. When I first saw the plasma waves, I thought about oceanic currents. This, combined with the idea of fish, made me think about creating a piece that involves waves in a fish tank. A fish tank that is made to look resemble the Large Plasma Device in Dr. Gekelman’s lab can be attached to a touch screen device. The touchscreen device will allow participants to choose aspects involved in creating and manipulating the plasma ropes, including temperature and magnetic field. As they change these specifics, a current will be run through the fish tank that simulates the shape of the plasma ropes that would be created under the conditions specified by the participant. The fish in the tank can be varieties that live in rough waters and are used to strong currents. This project highlights that the plasma ropes change based on their environment, just as the way in which the fish swim changes based on their environment.


The Large Plasma Device in Dr. Gekelman’s lab and a graph of plasma ropes that, to me, resemble waves in the ocean.

The fourth state of matter, plasma, is very difficult to understand since, unlike solids, liquids and gasses, it is not encountered in daily life. Dr. Gekelman’s research will help the science world understand more about how this matter interacts with its environment, and hopefully one day a bioart project will help a general audience understand this as well.


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"Aurora Borealis: What Causes the Northern Lights & Where to See Them." N.p., 10 Feb. 2015. Web. 24 May 2016.

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Vesna, Victoria. "BIRD SONG DIAMOND Japan Documentation Videos." N.p., 28 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 May 2016.