When I was at elementary school, my teacher told me that matter exists in three possible states: solid, liquid and gas. She neglected to mention plasma, a special kind of electrified gas that’s a state unto itself.
We rarely encounter natural plasma, unless we’re lucky enough to see the Northern lights, or if we look at the Sun through a special filter, or if we poke our head out the window during a lightning storm, as I liked to do when I was a kid.
Yet plasma, for all its scarcity in our daily lives, makes up more than 99 per cent of the observable matter in the Universe (that is, if we discount dark matter).
Plasma physics is a rich and diverse field of enquiry, with its own special twist. In some areas of science, intellectual vitality comes from the beauty of grand theories and the search for deep underlying laws – as shown by Albert Einstein’s account of gravity in general relativity, or string theorists’ attempt to replace the Standard Model of subatomic particles with tiny oscillating strands of energy.
The study of plasmas also enjoys some remarkably elegant mathematical constructions, but unlike its scientific cousins, it’s mostly been driven by its applications to the real world.
First, though, how do you make a plasma?
Imagine heating up a container full of ice, and watching it pass from solid, to liquid, to gas. As the temperature climbs, the water molecules get more energetic and excitable, and move around more and more freely.
If you keep going, at something like 12,000 degrees Celsius the atoms themselves will begin to break apart. Electrons will be stripped from their nuclei, leaving behind charged particles known as ions that swirl about in the resulting soup of electrons. This is the plasma state.
The connection between blood and ‘physical’ plasma is more than mere coincidence. In 1927, the American chemist Irving Langmuir observed that the way plasmas carried electrons, ions, molecules and other impurities was similar to how blood plasma ferries around red and white bloodcells and germs.
Langmuir was a pioneer in the study of plasmas; with his colleague Lewi Tonks, he also discovered that plasmas are characterised by rapid oscillations of their electrons due to the collective behaviour of the particles.
Another interesting property of plasmas is their capacity to support so-called hydromagnetic waves – bulges that move through the plasma along magnetic field lines, similar to how vibrations travel along a guitar string.
When Hannes Alfvén, the Swedish scientist and eventual Nobel prizewinner, first proposed the existence of these waves in 1942, the physics community was skeptical.
But after Alfvén delivered a lecture at the University of Chicago, the renowned physicist and faculty member Enrico Fermi came up to him to discuss the theory, conceding that: ‘Of course such waves could exist!’ From that moment on, the scientific consensus was that Alfvén was absolutely correct.
One of the biggest motivators of contemporary plasma science is the promise of controlled thermonuclear fusion, where atoms merge together and release intense but manageable bursts of energy. This would provide an almost limitless source of safe, ‘green’ power, but it’s not an easy task.
Before fusion can occur here on Earth, the plasma must be heated to more than 100 million degrees Celsius – about 10 times hotter than the centre of the Sun!
But that’s not even the most complicated bit; we managed to reach those temperatures and beyond in the 1990s. What’s worse is that hot plasma is very unstable and doesn’t like to stay at a fixed volume, which means that it’s hard to contain and make useful.
Attempts to achieve controlled thermonuclear fusion date back to the early 1950s.
At the time, research was done secretly by the United States as well as the Soviet Union and Great Britain. In the US, Princeton University was the fulcrum for this research.
There, the physicist Lyman Spitzer started Project Matterhorn, where a secret coterie of scientists tried to spark and contain fusion in a figure-8-shaped device called a ‘stellarator’.
They didn’t have computers, and had to rely only on pen and pencil calculations. While they didn’t solve the puzzle, they ended up developing ‘the energy principle’, which remains a powerful method for testing the ideal stability of a plasma.
Meanwhile, scientists in the Soviet Union were developing a different device: the ‘tokamak’. This machine, designed by the physicists Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm, employed a strong magnetic field to corral hot plasma into the shape of a donut.
The tokamak was better at keeping the plasma hot and stable, and to this day most of the fusion research programmes rely on a tokamak design. To that end, a consortium of China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the US has joined together to construct the world’s largest tokamak reactor, expected to open in 2025.
However, in recent years there’s also been a renewed enthusiasm for stellarators, and the world’s largest opened in Germany in 2015. Investing in both routes to fusion probably gives us our best chance of ultimately attaining success.
Plasma is also entangled with the physics of the space around Earth, where the stuff gets carried through the void on the winds generated in the upper atmosphere of the Sun.
We’re lucky that the Earth’s magnetic field shields us from the charged plasma particles and damaging radiation of such solar wind, but our satellites, spacecraft and astronauts are all exposed. Their capacity to survive in this hostile environment relies on understanding and accommodating ourselves to the quirks of plasma.
In a new field known as ‘space weather’, plasma physics plays a role similar to that of fluid dynamics in terrestrial, atmospheric conditions.
I’ve devoted much of my research to something called magnetic reconnection, where the magnetic field lines in the plasma can tear and reconnect, which leads to a rapid release of energy.
This process is believed to power the Sun’s eruptive events, such as solar flares, although detailed comprehension remains elusive. In the future, we might be able to predict solar storms the way that we can forecast bad weather in cities.
Looking backward, not forward, in space and time, my hope is that plasma physics will offer insights into how stars, galaxies and galaxy clusters first formed.
According to the standard cosmological model, plasma was pervasive in the early Universe; then everything began to cool, and charged electrons and protons bound together to make electrically neutral hydrogen atoms.
This state lasted until the first stars and black holes formed and began emitting radiation, at which point the Universe ‘reionised’ and returned to a mostly plasma state.
Finally, plasmas help to explain some of the most spectacular phenomena we’ve observed in the remotest regions of the cosmos. Take far-away black holes, massive objects so dense that even light can’t escape them. They’re practically invisible to direct observation.
However, black holes are typically encircled by a rotating disk of plasma matter, which orbits within the black hole’s gravitational pull, and emits high-energy photons that can be observed in the X-ray spectrum, revealing something about this extreme environment.
It’s been an exciting journey for me since the days I thought that solids, liquids and gases were the only kinds of matter that mattered. Plasmas still seem rather exotic, but as we learn to exploit their potential, and widen our view of the cosmos, one day they might seem as normal to us as ice and water.
And if we ever achieve controlled nuclear fusion, plasmas might be something we can no longer live without.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
We Have a Cure for the Deadliest Form of Tuberculosis
The Food and Drug Administration just approved the third and final part of a new drug regimen shown to cure the deadliest strain of tuberculosis.
The regimen involves taking five pills every day for six months straight, but that’s nothing compared to the existing treatment, which requires 40 daily pills for two years, according to The New York Times. And in a small clinical trial, the new treatment was shown to cure the rare, deadly XDR strain of tuberculosis in 90 percent of people, suggesting that the disease could soon become much more manageable.
Tuberculosis is still a major problem in a large chunk of the world. The disease is the most common infectious cause of death on Earth, the NYT writes, and the XDR strain had already built up a resistance to all four types of antibiotics that doctors currently use to treat it.
Ten million people catch XDR tuberculosis every year. Three-quarters of those people die before they get any treatment, per the NYT, and existing cures only worked on just over a third of the remainders.
The new treatment requires three separate drugs, the newest of which just got FDA approval. Gerald Friedland, one of the scientists who discovered the XDR strain told the NYT that he thought the recent experiment was “a wonderful trial.”
“If this works as well as it seems to,” he said, “we need to do this now.”
New Virus Takes Screenshots of Users Online Porn Searches
‘Sextortion’ in the making…
A new harmful virus is going after naughty victims searching for porn online, or using any other sex-related website in the most unexpected, low-blow way.
Slovakia-based IT security company ESET has warned French users about a new virus, dubbed Varenyky that allegedly records their device screens when it detects key words used to search for porn (i.e. XXX, pornhub, sex).
When these words appear, the malware could record the screen using an FFmpeg executable and then upload the video to the command-and-control (C&C) server using a downloaded Tor client.
As soon as the Spambot Trojan, which was first detected in May in France, makes its way onto people’s computers, it can get access to their passwords and emails, and potentially send the X-rated snaps to a victim’s family or friends – or even use them for blackmail.
A spike in ESET’s telemetry led our researchers to discover #Varenyky, a #spambot able to spy on victims’ screens while they watch sexual content, enabling very real #sextortion campaigns. @welivesecurity @ESETresearch https://t.co/W8WQ79oazg pic.twitter.com/gU0S4g8WCO
— ESET (@ESET) August 8, 2019
The malware, which is still being developed by unknown hackers, also sends spam emails pretending to be invoices or bills, and once people open an attachment, it is able to extract usernames and passwords.
“Researchers observed a spike in ESET telemetry data regarding malware targeting France. After further investigations, we identified malware that distributes various types of spam. One of them is leading to a survey that redirects to a dodgy smartphone promotion while the other is a sextortion campaign. The spam targets the users of Orange SA, a French ISP. We notified them before the release of this publication”, ESET said in a report.
Even though the Varenyky malware is able to spy on victims’ screens, at this point ESET is not aware of any kind of sextortion activity.
Not for the Faint of Heart: How the Human Body Decays
Researchers at the Anthropological Research Facility at the University of Tennessee (the Body Farm) are charged with studying how the process of decay on human bodies takes place.
There, donated cadavers are observed and examined outdoors under various conditions to determine just what happens at specific times to a body in the process of decaying.
Among other uses this information is invaluable in helping law enforcement officials accurately determine time of death in criminal cases. While the process is not for the squeamish it provides a interesting glimpse into how our bodies are reclaimed by the earth.
Death and Rigor Mortis
The moment a person dies their body begins to cool at the rate of about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit per hour. This cooling process continues until the cadaver reaches the same temperature as the air around it.
Rigor mortis, the stiffening of the bodies muscles due to a lack of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), begins within 2 to 4 hours after death at the head and neck. The process proceeds down the entire length of the body until finally disappearing within 10 to 48 hours.
Flies and other insects quickly arrive at a cadaver and lay larvae at bodily orifices where the maggots can most easily gain entry to the body’s interior. These entry points include the eyes, mouth, genitalia, and any open sores. The goal for the insect larvae is the fat that lies just under the skin which they can then feed and grow on.
Autolysis, The Body Eats Itself
In a living human body enzymes within cells metabolize various substances which are then used to fuel the body. When a person dies the cells no longer have the ability to control these enzymes and they begin to break down the cell walls with the interior fluid leaking out.
The liquid from the eyes is one of the first things to go in a cadaver, spilling out of the eye sockets. “Skin slip”, or “gloving”, occurs as this cellular fluid leaks between layers of skin and loosens them. Entire sections of skin can then slough off a cadaver.
Autolysis is the process of self-digestion that occurs within a cadaver as all this leaking fluid provides food for bacteria located throughout the body; in the lungs, the intestines, and on the skin for example.
Feasting on all this food, bacteria migrate throughout the body causing it to bloat as it fills with gasses that the bacteria expel as waste. A living human being expels this gas on their own, but with no working digestive system a cadaver just fills up with gas.
The most bloating takes place where the largest colonies of bacteria live, typically in the stomach, the mouth (making the lips and tongue bloat), and the genitals.
Bloating continues for about a week until some part of the cadaver gives way, usually the intestines or the torso itself splitting open releasing the pent-up gas. During all this autolysis and bloating the insects have been busy feeding with larvae continually growing larger and more numerous.
Putrefaction and Decay
Putrefaction is the dissolving of the body’s organs that takes place as bacteria continue to eat fluids that have leaked out of the cells. Because of their high concentrations of bacteria, the lungs and digestive organs liquefy first. The brain goes quickly also, as the bacteria in the mouth work through the soft upper palate, feeding on the organ from below.
Eventually the organs in the torso have all dissolved into an unrecognizable, soupy mixture. Meat-eating insects along with bacteria will also attack the muscles for food.
Depending on the environment and weather conditions the skin may or may not be consumed. With this the process is nearly complete and the body has quietly returned back to the earth from where it came.
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