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The 4th State of Matter Is The Most Amazing And Full of Potential. Here’s Why. –

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.

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Science & Technology

Dark secrets of DNA. Scientists talk about dangerous types of marriage

Scientists sequenced the genome of a man buried in a Stone Age tomb at Newgrange in Ireland and found that he was born as a result of incest. Marriages between close relatives were almost always prohibited due to the threat of degeneration. However, there is a risk of accidental incest. How dangerous it is from the point of view of genetics?

Power sealed in blood

For biological and cultural reasons, incest has been taboo since ancient times. They violated the ban in exceptional cases for the sake of strengthening power. Probably, the discovery of Irish scientists in Newgrange is connected with this – with the formation of the ruling elite in prehistoric society.

Dynastic marriages between relatives and cousins ​​were concluded in Ancient Egypt, the Inca empire, in the royal families of the Hawaiian archipelago. It once symbolized the purity of blood.
The majority of Iceland’s 360,000 inhabitants are descendants of several Viking groups who settled on the island in the 9th century.

The population is genetically very homogeneous. A few years ago, local company deCode Genetics even released an app based on a DNA test database to prevent young people from accidentally marrying a close relative.

DNA rushes to the rescue

Computer programs have been developed that compare a set of certain regions of the genome and determine the degree of relationship. Genealogical research is generally very popular now. People do DNA tests, upload the results to public databases such as Ancestry and Gedmach, and find relatives. First of all, those who do not know their origin: raised in orphanages, adopted.

Sometimes this kind of research brings unpleasant surprises. So, an American gave her husband a DNA test for his birthday. The results shocked the spouses: they turned out to be first-order cousins ​​on the father’s side. Moreover, the couple already had a two-year-old child. The woman spoke about this a year ago in the podcast of the American publication Slate.

Scientists immediately warned that sperm donation is fraught with accidental incest, and recommended strictly limiting the number of children conceived by one donor. In 2011, The New York Times reported 150 half-brothers and sisters. In 2017, the British press raised the issue of countries like Nigeria where the legislative regulation of this area is weak. Last year in the United States, there was a lot of discussion about the story of Dr. Kline, who tricked female clients of a reproductive clinic with his own sperm. Nearly five dozen of his biological children have found each other through public DNA testing databases.

How dangerous are “dynastic ties”

Children of incestuous marriages are twice as likely to get hereditary pathology. They have a higher risk of rare genetic diseases (orphan diseases) caused by recessive alleles – variants of genes whose activity is usually suppressed.

“Both spouses can inherit a recessive mutant allele from a common ancestor. They are healthy, but they have a heterozygous genotype, that is, with this allele. The probability that such a couple will have a sick child with a homozygous genotype is 25 percent,”.


If both parents carry an X chromosome with a mutant gene, then the risk of passing them on to both children increases to 25%. This situation often develops in closely related marriages.

In this case, medical genetic counseling is necessary in order to reduce the risk of passing on the genetic pathology to the child. Experts take into account everything: the degree of kinship, the state of health of family members, other kinship marriages in previous generations, ethnicity, since some hereditary diseases accumulate in certain ethnic groups.

“During pregnancy, you can undergo prenatal genetic diagnostics in order to obtain the most accurate data on the genetic material of the child,”.

Meanwhile, according to various estimates, about a billion people live in closed communities, where closely related marriages are not uncommon and even encouraged. For example, in Egypt, men could only marry if they had a home. Accordingly, the problem was solved by marriage between relatives living under the same roof – as a rule, cousins.

“In southern India, more than 52 percent of marriages are between cousins ​​and second cousins. Many nationalities have lived like this for thousands of years and have not disappeared from the face of the earth because of a rare recessive gene associated with any disease,”.

A person is able to adapt to almost any situation, Sosin believes. The most serious pathologies that are not compatible with life are eliminated even at the zygote stage – when the germ cells merge or the first few divisions of the embryo. If the pathology is not fatal, the child can be born.

Scientists give an example – Turkey, where marriages between cousins ​​and sisters are very common. Infant mortality is high there, and among the elderly it is common in countries with similar income and social security levels. This phenomenon is called the “Turkish puzzle”.

“In 1968, 27 percent of marriages in Turkey were concluded by close relatives. In 2008, 24. Studies have shown that, in general, first-degree marriages, that is, between a cousin and a sister, increase infant mortality by 45 percent. This is another insurance policy. , through which nature removes from the equation of life children who are not able to exist physically fully, “.

However, it is incorrect to deduce a certain average value of the risk of pathologies in closely related marriages. Each case is unique. It is especially difficult with multifactorial diseases, the causes of which remain unclear. By the way, they can be ecological, rooted in the way of life. For example, schizophrenia. Parents with this diagnosis have a 29 percent risk of transmitting the pathology to their child, and 41 percent if they are close relatives. According to some reports, children born in a marriage between a cousin and a sister have slightly worse IQ scores (by 0.8-1.3 points).

On the Internet, they write that in closely related marriages, almost half of the children are with hereditary pathologies. In fact, Sosin emphasizes, much less. According to various estimates, from one to nine percent, when it comes to parents who are each other’s first generation cousins.

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The mystery of Azzo Bassou, nicknamed the planet’s last Neanderthal

For years, scientists have been looking for the missing link in human evolution, the “connection” between humans and their ape-like ancestors, according to evolutionary theory.

Scientists ran to look at new evidence of the existence of the Yeti and the Bigfoot, just to catch this very connection. But there was one person in the history of science who excited scientists’ minds for many years.

In 1931, a man named Azzo Bassou was discovered by the local press in Marrakech in Morocco.

Azzo Bassou lived in the Dades Valley, near the town of Skoura.

The locals knew about him. According to them, he lived in a cave, ate raw meat. He walked naked (they put him in a bag just to take pictures) and used very basic tools.

They also described him as a person with low intellectual abilities in a primitive way.

He had the ability to pronounce some words, but many of them were illegible.

His forehead was sunken, there was a convex jaw, a large nose and long arms that reached almost to the knees.

In 1956, the French writer Jean Boulet, accompanied by ethnologist Marcel Gomet, arrived in the city to find out and study this case.

Scientists who saw him compared his skull with the remains of Neanderthals found and were amazed at their similarity.

The tabloids immediately dubbed him “the missing link”, portraying him as the last living Neanderthal.

In the midst of his research, Azzo died at the age of 60. True, there were two of his alleged sisters with similar facial features – Hisa and Herkaya.

Both women did very hard physical work with ease and were as wild as their alleged relative.


After careful study, scientists concluded that most likely these three were sick with microcephaly.


Microcephaly is a significant decrease in the size of the skull and, accordingly, the brain with normal sizes of other parts of the body. Microcephaly is accompanied by mental impairment – from not pronounced imbecility to idiocy.

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Like naked: new fabric will provide cooling without air conditioning

Scientists have developed a fabric that does not interfere with the body’s natural cooling. Now even the hottest summer in a strict office suit can be as comfortable as in swimming trunks or a bikini.

The innovation is described in a scientific article published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

What to do when clothes are too hot? You can, for example, undress. Alas, if it is not on the beach, people around are unlikely to correctly assess such a gesture.

Weary of strict business etiquette, people are increasingly relying on air conditioners. For example, in such a southern country as the United States, 10% of all electricity (!) is spent on cooling premises.

Now materials scientists have developed a fabric that does not interfere with the body’s natural cooling. This will make people feel more comfortable while saving on air conditioners.

The material consists of three substances: polyurethane, fluorinated polyurethane and two-dimensional boron nitride. The latter covers the fibers, between which there are wide pores.

These pores allow the skin to come into contact with the air and the sweat to evaporate. What’s more, boron nitride imparts incredible thermal conductivity to fabrics. So the heat of the human body does not accumulate under the clothes, but freely goes out into the surrounding space.

The fibers form large pores, allowing the skin to come into contact with air.Illustration by American Chemical Society.

Surprisingly, at the same time, the fabric also does not let water through from the outside. This is achieved thanks to the outer layer of water-repellent fluorinated polyurethane.

In one experiment, scientists stretched the material between two chambers, one above the other, placing the fabric with the outer side up. The top was filled with water, and air was left at the bottom. As a result, the water did not seep down, but the air went up perfectly and entered the water in the form of bubbles.

The new material allows sweat to evaporate from the surface of the skin, but does not allow water to enter from the outside.Illustration by American Chemical Society.

The authors of the development note that the new fabric is cheaper and easier to manufacture than other self-cooling materials.

The novelty can be useful not only for making clothes. It can be used, for example, in the manufacture of electronics, as well as for the desalination of sea water.

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