Plasma: The Most Abundant State of Matter

This week we had the pleasure of attending LASER presentation at CNSI to hear experimental physicist Walter Gekelman speak, as well as an exhibit displaying student works inspired by his research. As Dr. Vesna had praised him throughout our previous lectures, I came in knowing that his work is mainly carried out through creating and manipulating plasma. 

    Although I have not had a very thorough education in particle physics, I have taken a few university-level courses while in college and high school on electricity and magnetism. For this reason, I listened to his lecture with the following knowledge, which he later reinforced himself. Plasma is a fourth state of matter in which charged matter is superheated into a gas that eventually breaks down into charged particles that create energy through their continuous associations. I thought that Dr. Gekelman did a fantastic job of breaking down such a complex subject matter and explaining it piece by piece to students who would normally feel completely left in the dark. I typically middle school students in areas of basic science and I can honestly say that his explanation as well as his use of an appropriate level of detail is difficult to match. 



What I did not know of, however, were the small technicalities and calculations that make such a process possible. First off, I did not know that plasma is the most common state of matter in the universe. I was astonished once I was told that plasma can be found our everyday fluorescent light bulbs. Interestingly, while I thought I was the only one with native preconceptions about this aspect of plasma, a quick survey of some of my classmates suggested otherwise. A greater chunk of the students I sampled revealed that they thought plasma was solely found in outer space. Additionally, Gekelman mentioned that plasma is typically found between temperatures of 12 million to 300 million degrees centigrade. This reaction is typically performed in giant machine which requires massive amounts of energy, amounting to the typical portion of electricity used to power all of Westwood! And to top it all off, this outstanding plasma creation only lasts one billionth of a second. This is where the majority of Gekelman’s audience went into shock. Naturally, Gekelman was unfazed by such a reaction. To him, this parameter value was to be expected - completely normal. 



    What I found most intriguing about Dr. Gekelman’s lecture was his impromptu blurb about geomagnetic storms. He mentioned that an surge in plasma movement, solar winds are currents in the Earth’s magnetosphere causing its temporary disruption. At first, I found the extend of possibly damage resulting from these storms to be quite unnerving. It was only after researching on my own time that I realized how creative, rather than destructive, the storms could be. A great example of its effects are the arctic’s Aurora Borealis lights, which are in fact created by plasma translocations released by the son. In particular, these molecules interest with atoms in the atmosphere to the point of their excitement and subsequent display of color. A similar effect is noted through the graceful plasma ropes that are observed by the sun and mimicked through Gekelman’s research. Overall, I found Dr. Gekelman’s lecture to be a great way to mesh a hard science like physics with aesthetic elements to produce non-conventional works of art.