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July 20, 2004

A public radio commentary

At lunch recently an engineering colleague of mine claimed that the material world exists because of something unknown to most people. When I asked what that would be, he gave me a one word answer: Plasma. "Plasma," I said, raising my eyebrows, "what exactly is that?"

I learned that plasma is a fourth state of matter - beyond the three types we've learned about in school - the solid, liquid, and gases that we encounter in our daily lives. Plasma lurks around quietly in the background with little notice, yet it makes possible our interaction with these common forms of matter.

A plasma is an electrically charged gas. Usually a gas is electrically neutral, that is, the positive and negative charges reside together, but in a plasma they are ripped apart. So, in a sense a plasma is a charged cloud. In fact, a lightning cloud is a kind of plasma. Now how could such a thing affect our lives? Well, through the material things around us.

The fluorescent lights above our heads is plasma in action. When you switch on the electricity it separates the charged particles of the enclosed gas, thus setting up a controlled lightning display.

The tiny silicon microchip that runs every computer depends on plasmas. The circuit drawn on that chip is created by plasma etching: The highly charged gas burns very precise lines in the chip creating the circuit.

And plasmas appear in our lives in even more mundane ways. As my colleague and I finished lunch he shook a potato chip bag at me and said "plasmas even make this possible." Indeed, its very difficult to get ink to stick to a mylar chip bag - but blast it with a plasma and ink readily retains adheres to the bag.

Then he pointed out the window. "Ninety-nine percent of the universe is composed of plasmas," he said. The Northern lights, for example, are the emission of a glowing plasma.

So, the irrelevant detritus of our world - potato chip bags and the like - to the aurora borealis all depend on plasma. Now that is truly a cosmic oneness.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises