Another matter

Aurora Borealis; the Northern Lights.
Aurora Borealis

When is a substance not a liquid, solid, or gas? Give up? When it’s plasma, the fourth state of matter. (Not blood plasma, which is something different.)  Alas, my elementary school science failed me. And now…literally, decades later, I have become re-enchanted with this fact.

So, for those of us who are a bit out of touch with plasma, I’ll paraphrase a bit about this state. To begin with, what exactly is plasma?

Plasma is a super-heated gas that becomes so hot its electrons leave the atom’s orbit and roam free. A gas becomes a plasma when extreme heat causes its atoms to shed their electrons.

Okay, that’s cool, but where is it? We recognize the other states of matter, but what about this mysterious thing? Plasma is the most abundant form of visible matter in the universe and believed to compose up to 99 percent of what we see in the night sky; populating the infinite regions of interstellar and interplanetary space. Like the sun, stars are enormous balls of plasma. The fusion fueled by plasma creates the energy that gives us sunlight, which as we know, is essential for life on Earth.

Hmmm, so if this plasma is another state of matter, where else is it found?  Lightning, neon signs, fluorescent light bulbs, a candle flame, some television and computer displays are all examples of plasma. Like a gas, plasma has no shape or a definite volume unless it is enclosed in a container. However, distinctive from gas, when under the influence of a magnetic field, it may form structures such as filaments, beams and double layers.

Can we see it? Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, is nature’s way of showing it to us. This occurs because plasma particles hurled from the sun interact with Earth’s magnetosphere, (the magnetic field that surrounds us).

Today’s esteemed thinker is English chemist and physicist, Sir William Crookes (1832-1919). He discovered the element thallium and invented the radiometer, the spinthariscope (a device for studying alpha particles), and the Crookes tube. Not a household name, Crookes discovered the electron when he was reconstructing the Cathode Ray. By placing black vanes on one side and silver on the other, it caused the vacuum tube to spin when it hit the light. Since the Cathode Ray had previously been built, he needed to call it something else. Today it is known as the Crookes’ Tube.

In 1879, while playing with an experimental electrical discharge tube (in which air is ionized by the introduction of a high voltage through a coil), he discovered “Plasma”.  Originally Sir William Crookes called it radiant matter. However, in 1928 Irving Langmuir, an American chemist and physicist, renamed it because he was reminded of blood plasma… go figure! 

Esteemed thinker: George Field

20140715_124832 There are three primary colors, red, blue, and yellow, and three secondary colors, orange, purple, and green, which are created by mixing one primary color with another. For example: if you mix a dash of yellow with a dash of red you will produce orange. For our youngest members of society, this in itself is magic. As we turn our colors from one shade to another, we can become more creative with the names. Dark blue, resembling the night sky, can have the moniker of “midnight blue”, while a more vibrant blend of blue and green may be referred to as “turquoise”.

But it was just recently; upon a re-voyage to the Caribbean Sea that I decided the names of the blues did not satisfy my request for identification of the water’s color. There seemed to be nothing on the “proverbial” palette that would announce such grandeur, such beauty, for as one would venture from wave to wave, the sun upon the surface changed the blues like a chameleon dashing from leaf to leaf.

And so, my tongue was tied to the usual color selections however, I know better than to hold such radiance hostage within the framework of the color-wheel.

NPG D20848; George Field by David Lucas, after  Richard RothwellToday’s blog introduces the esteemed thinker: George Field (1777- 1854), the British chemist, who helped alter British painting both aesthetically and practically. It was during the industrial revolution that an increased knowledge of chemistry allowed early nineteenth-century painters to benefit from the most dramatic increase in the number of new natural and synthetic pigments and refined color processing developments. Field, buttressed his theories with reliable information about light-fast, durable pigments, all based on his own scientific experiments and manufacturing processes.

In 1835, he published Chromatography, although already recognized by professional painters as London’s most important color-maker and supplier.

I now bring you a piece of his writing from FIELD’S CHROMATOGRAPHY; OR, TREATISE ON COLOURS AND PIGMENTS AS USED BY ARTISTS. From the essay, The relations of harmony and colour, here is something to ponder.

“Assured as we must be of the importance of colouring as a branch of art, colours in all their bearings become interesting to the artist, and on their use and arrangement his reputation as a colourist must depend.
Colour, remarks Ruskin, is wholly relative; each hue throughout a work is altered by every touch added in other places. Thus, to place white beside a colour is to heighten its tone; to set black beside a colour is to weaken its tone; while to put grey beside a colour, is to render it more brilliant. If a dark colour be placed near a different, but lighter colour, the tone of the first is heightened, while that of the second is lowered. An important consequence of this principle is, that the first effect may neutralize the second, or even destroy it altogether. …

We learn from these relations of colours, why dapplings of two or more produce effects in painting so much more clear and brilliant than uniform tints obtained by compounding the same colours: and why hatchings, or a touch of their contrasts, thrown as it were by accident upon local tints, have the same effect. We see, too, why colours mixed deteriorate each other, which they do more—in many cases—by imperfectly neutralizing or subduing each other chromatically, than by any chemical action. Finally, we are impressed with the necessity, not only of using colours pure, but of using pure colours; although pure colouring and brilliancy differ as much from crudeness and harshness, as tone and harmony from murkiness and monotony.

The powers of colours in contrasting each other agree with their correlative powers of light and shade, and are to be distinguished from their powers individually on the eye, which are those of light alone. Thus, although orange and blue are equal powers with respect to each other, as regards the eye they are totally different and opposed. Orange is a luminous colour, and has a powerfully irritating effect, while blue is a shadowy colour, possessing a soothing quality—and it is the same, in various degrees, with other colours …”

Second image: Portrait by David Lucas, after Richard Rothwell mezzotint, 1845 (1839)

Esteemed thinker: Marie Curie

Marie curie_toned The first time you looked through a telescope and saw craters of the moon and the first time you placed a celery stalk in water mixed with food coloring and its leaves turned from green to blue… you knew you were in the presence of magic. Oh, not the fake kind of magic where your Uncle was hiding the coin in his other hand…even the ‘young’ you understood this was a trick! No, it’s the kind of magic that seduces you, a yearning to learn more … it’s the special magic that nagged at your youthful imagination to find out what makes the leaves turn colors in autumn, why does the wind whistle through the oak’s canopy, and how is it that the firefly wears a little light that goes on at night… the real magic that comes alive with knowledge.

Just perhaps this is how it must be for the life of the scientist; a quest to discover or uncover magic. Of course I am using magic as a metaphor in relationship to scientific discovery, however just for a moment think about it …it often seems like such work would be aligned with the spirit of wonderment… almost a childishly magical realm…

And so with the thoughts of the magic in science, today’s blog brings you the esteemed thinker: Marie Curie; given name Maria Salomea Skłodowska and best known as Madame Curie (1867-1934)… legendary woman scientist… pioneer in the study of radioactivity. Born in Russian occupied Poland, at the age of fifteen she obtained a higher education (forbidden to girls in Poland) from a clandestine, revolving academy for women taught in private homes. In 1891 she went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne where she met and married the French professor and physicist Pierre Curie (1895). Their life together was mutually respected whereby their research and discoveries led the way for future generations. Marie Curie’s life is nothing short of a heroine, having earned two Nobel Prizes in Physics and in Chemistry and culminating in the tragic death from radium; the very discovery that brought her fame.

So, let us take pause to hear a bit of her words during a debate she presided over in Madrid (1933) on “The Future of Culture”. We will celebrate this extraordinary woman with a brief but solitary moment out of own busy day…

“… I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: *he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its own beauty. Neither do I believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world. If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems indestructible and it akin to curiosity… ”

* it is curious that Madame Curie only used the masculine pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’ although she herself was a great and renown scientist at this time in her life. However, when we reflect back with the knowledge that women in France had only gained the right to vote in 1944 (by the order of 21 April 1944 adopted by the provisional government of General de Gaulle in Algiers) it really is not too curious after-all…