The weather is starting to display signs of being fall and I’m hoping we can find some time in the next several weeks for a fire pit fire or two. I’ve written about fire mythology, and the history of fire, but for some reason I found myself looking up fire today. Scientists have made what should be simple (fire) much more complicated by creating A Definition: Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the exothermic chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products. If hot enough, the gases may become ionized to produce plasma.
Which of course got me thinking about plasma. Until recently, my only encounters with plasma were the type related to blood and the type related to TVs. As I recall, there were only three states of matter when I was in high school (liquid, gas, solid) but it seems someone added plasma when I wasn’t looking. Actually, they’ve added a whole bunch of weird states that are common knowledge now that weren’t when I was in high school and college.
You know how we have to renew our Driver’s Licenses every however many years? And if you move to a different state you have to take the written test all over? I wonder if we should require adults to take HS refresher courses every so many years. Most of us would fail (for proof of this, you need only watch one episode of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?).
There is a lot of information on the internet about plasma. I have thoughtfully taken out all the technical stuff (which means if your professors expect you to know something about plasma another source of information is definitely in order. If you are just looking for chit-chat conversation, this is more than sufficient.).
Plasma is the Switzerland of matter, meaning it is neutrally charged. (Neutrally charged means you returned your purchase the same day you used your credit card.)
In my (rather unscientific) mind, plasma is a lot like oobleck. Turns out my mind is, um, unscientific at best. Wrong is probably a more accurate term.
Like a gas (and sort of like oobleck), plasma does not have a definite shape or a definite volume unless enclosed in a container; unlike gas, under the influence of a magnetic field plasma may form structures like filaments, beams, and double layers. I have never heard of oobleck forming a structure with or without a magnet.
Plasmas are by far the most common phase of ordinary matter in the universe. Which raises the question: why did it take so long to figure out that there are more than three states of matter? Answer: because plasma is not at all like oobleck and most of it exists either in neon signs or outside the gravitational pull of the sun. Stars (including our very own sun) are made of plasma, much of interstellar space is filled with a plasma, and even black holes are fueled by “accreting ionising matter” (i.e., plasma). Lighting is plasma. Who knew? Well, you probably did, but I didn’t. All very difficult to hold in your hands.
Plasma is also a euphemism for alcohol which is easier to hold than lightning. Except when you are underage.
Here’s to keeping plasma (the blood type) inside you, plasma (the TV type) in front of you,* and plasma (the lightening type) far away.
*Except when you’re in class or studying.