Saturday, January 30, 2010

Non-Neutral Plasma Physics I

I thought it might be fun to describe the research group I'm in, the Non-Neutral Plasma Physics group at BYU.

First, I'll need to explain a little about plasma in general: Plasmas are the fourth state of matter. Most people are aware of solids, liquids, and gases - each of these states of matter have various structures and densities based on the energy the molecules of the substance have and the innate chemical properties of the matter. Changing from one state of matter to another requires inputing or extracting energy from the system the energy is in; we commonly refer to these changing points as the Melting Point (changing from a solid to a liquid and vice versa) and the Boiling Point (changing from a liquid to a gas) of the substances in question.

In all of these states of matter, we generally have (using a classical model) electrons bound to the atoms in the molecule more or less permanently. In plasmas, however, (I'm talking about neutral plasmas right now - non neutral plasmas are slightly different), the temperature (and hence the kinetic energy) of the matter is high enough to separate the electrons from the atoms they are originally connected to permanently. The result is a gas-like substance with free floating nuclei and electrons.

Since most of matter we encounter in our daily lives is one of the three traditional states of matter (solids, liquids, and gases), it may come as a surprise (it did for me) that the majority of the matter in the universe that we know of resides in the plasma state. The sun, for example, is hot enough to keep the matter inside of it more or less constantly in the plasma state, and the space in-between consists of large amounts of plasma as well. Unfortunately (or fortunately for scientists like me :) ) since plasma is relatively rare on the surface of the earth, knowledge of the state of matter lags behind that of gases, liquids and solids, and plasmas constitute a heavy area of research in physics.

This post has already gotten rather long, so I'll leave it at this. Next Time: Non - Neutral Plasmas!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Is it more fun not to know?

I have a general education class this semester with students from many different types of majors. In a quip after class, one of the other students asked me to prove that magic doesn't exist, then made this statement (not necessarily word for word):

"Life is more fun when you don't know how everything works."

That statement seems strange to me. I understand that there is no way we can know how everything works, but I don't see how life can be more fun when we DON'T know how it works. Maybe someone more enlightened than I could explain that one...

Friday, January 15, 2010


Will term limits for congressmen really fix the cesspool of corruption that Washington represents? For a long time, I have felt such limits will help...but how much help those term limits will provide may not be as clear-cut it seems.

A piece from the Wall Street Journal on government waste in California makes an interesting comment:
"It turns out, for example, that all the pointless boards and commissions are bulletproof because they provide golden parachutes to politicians turned out of the state legislature by California's strict term limits."

Term limits apparently haven't eliminated corruption in California. I'm sure term limits are a good start, but something more must be done if we really want to clean up Washington.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Encouraging Thoughts

Here's something to remember, a poem by Myra Brooks Welch:

It was battered and scarred,
And the auctioneer thought it

hardly worth his while
To waste his time on the old violin,
but he held it up with a smile.

"What am I bid, good people", he cried,
"Who starts the bidding for me?"
"One dollar, one dollar, Do I hear two?"
"Two dollars, who makes it three?"
"Three dollars once, three dollars twice, going for three,"

But, No,
From the room far back a gray bearded man
Came forward and picked up the bow,
Then wiping the dust from the old violin
And tightening up the strings,
He played a melody, pure and sweet
As sweet as the angel sings.

The music ceased and the auctioneer
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said "What now am I bid for this old violin?"
As he held it aloft with its' bow.

"One thousand, one thousand, Do I hear two?"
"Two thousand, Who makes it three?"
"Three thousand once, three thousand twice,
Going and gone", said he.

The audience cheered,
But some of them cried,
"We just don't understand."
"What changed its' worth?"
Swift came the reply.
"The Touch of the Masters Hand."

And many a man with life out of tune
All battered with bourbon and gin
Is auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd
Much like that old violin

A mess of pottage, a glass of wine,
A game and he travels on.
He is going once, he is going twice,
He is going and almost gone.

But the Master comes,
And the foolish crowd never can quite understand,
The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
By the Touch of the Masters' Hand.

Myra Brooks Welch

We are more than we seem on the surface.