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: Nikola Tesla

futureIt is astounding to think that only a hundred and fifteen years ago, which is not a very long ago in the realm of time, the world was in the throes of a new millennium. This was the Edwardian era, the very beginning of the 20th century, and the future seemed as unrealistic as one could imagine. Airplanes, radios, and wireless transmission were at its infancy. And if only the predictions had come true, what a different world it would be. Andrew Carnegie hoped warfare would “become the most dishonorable” profession and Secretary of the Navy John D. Long held the common belief that war would be abolished.”

Forward to the 21st century, where we began with such inventions as segways, ipods, braile gloves and hybrid cars. Sadly we cannot celebrate the predictions of Carnegie and Long for they did not hold up to the test of time. Which leads us to today’s esteemed thinker: Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) a world renowned scientist who made some of his own predictions seventy or so years before the millennium.

nikola tesla Nikola Tesla, born in Smiljan, Lika, which was then part of the Austo-Hungarian Empire, the region of modern day Croatia. In 1873 he began his studies in mathematics and physics at the University in Prague, however became fascinated with electricity. In 1881 he started his career in electrical engineering in Budapst and privately built a reduction motor, a radical idea that was not received well in Europe. As a result he moved to the United States and worked with Thomas Edison. For the next 59 years he established himself as a great inventor, which included constructing his theory of alternating current, in direct conflict with Edison’s theory of direct current. In 1882, Tesla discovered the rotating magnetic field, a fundamental principle in physics and the basis of nearly all devices that use alternating current. Alternating current became standard power in the 20th Century, an accomplishment that ultimately changed the world.

I now bring to you a snippet from an article in the 1935 issue of Liberty magazine. Here is one of many predictions made by the inventor, Nikola Tesla, a man who probably did not predict his own beneficial contribution to everyday life.

“… At present we suffer from the derangement of our civilization because we have not yet completely adjusted ourselves to the machine age. The solution of our problems does not lie in destroying but in mastering the machine. Innumerable activities still performed by human hands today will be performed by automatons. At this very moment scientists working in the laboratories of American universities are attempting to create what has been described as a ” thinking machine.” I anticipated this development. I actually constructed “robots.”

Today the robot is an accepted fact, but the principle has not been pushed far enough. In the twenty-first century the robot will take the place which slave labor occupied in ancient civilization. There is no reason at all why most of this should not come to pass in less than a century, freeing mankind to pursue its higher aspirations…”

Esteemed thinker: Charles Waterton

olinguito Oh, the horrors of a ‘mistaken identity’; we have all had an embarrassing moment when you confuse one person for another and depending upon who it is can result in a very awkward moment. Generally a quick apology can be enough to satisfy most, yet if your error is met during a business meeting, one would think you had committed the crime of the century. And then there are those times when an error in identification can become more than a social faux-pas and resulting in an injurious consequence. Let us take the example of misidentifying a suspect erroneously; such as what transpired in the classic film “12 Angry Men”… and then there was the time the poor grey cat was blamed for breaking into the neighbors screened porch, only to discover after the feline was driven away in the back of a van to an undisclosed location… it was actually a band of roving raccoons that had committed the dastardly deed!

Which brings us to a most important discovery that fringes on the tale of a “mistaken identity”… on August 15, 2013 researchers announced the discovery of the first new mammal found in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years. It is a rust colored furry olinguito, which translates from Spanish to “little olingo.’ According to Kristofer Helgen, the Smithsonian’s curator of mammals, he and his team first saw the animal in the Andes back in 2006 and have been constructing its family history ever since. But behold… “It’s been kind of hiding in plain sight for a long time….” The olinguito once lived in the National Zoo in Washington for a year; it had been mistaken for a sister species, the olingo. Alas, another case of mistaken identity! In retrospect the scientists stated that they wondered how the animals could have been confused; the olinguitos are smaller, have shorter tails, a rounder face, tinier ears and darker bushier fur than the captivated olingo.

Charles Waterton And so, we all can see that even under the scrutiny of science… mistaken identity occurrences can happen ( and probably more often than one would like to admit) …which brings us to today’s blog where I shall introduce you to a more obscure name in the 21st century… the esteemed thinker: Charles Waterton, (1782-1865) English born naturalist and explorer. His adventurous expeditions brought back profound contributions; especially concerning fauna and bird life from South America. One of his more notable additions to science was the introduction into Europe of curare, now an invaluable drug in surgical operations. Considered an eccentric during his lifetime, he turned his family estate into an extensive nature reserve, long before such a concept was ever heard of. From his autobiography, Wanderings of South America, I give you some most interesting observations by nature’s champion, Mr. Waterton …

“…Here I had a fine opportunity once more of examining the three-toed sloth. He was in the house with me for a day or two. Had I taken a description of him as he lay sprawling on the floor I should have misled the world and injured natural history. On the ground he appeared really a bungled composition, and faulty at all points; awkwardness and misery were depicted on his countenance; and when I made him advance he sighed as though in pain…
After fully satisfying myself that it only leads the world into error to describe the sloth while he is on the ground or in any place except in a tree, I carried the one I had in my possession to his native haunts. As soon as he came in contact with the branch of a tree all went right with him. I could see as he climbed up into his own country that he was on the right road to happiness; and felt persuaded more than ever that the world has hitherto erred in its conjectures concerning the sloth, on account of naturalists not having given a description of him when he was in the only position in which he ought to have been described, namely, clinging to the branch of a tree…”

Einstein, Alpine Peaks, and the making of a physicist

“… creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering unexpected connections between our starting-point and its rich environment. But the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up.”