Plasma word origins

How one man accidentally named 99.999% of the visible universe.

Consider some modern definitions of the word plasma:

  1. Plasma is the colorless fluid part of blood, lymph, or milk, in which corpuscles or fat globules are suspended.

  2. Plasma an ionized gas consisting of positive ions and free electrons in proportions resulting in more or less no overall electric charge, typically at low pressures (as in the upper atmosphere and in fluorescent lamps) or at very high temperatures (as in stars and nuclear fusion reactors).

  3. Plasma related to Cytoplasm. The protoplasm of a cell contained within the cell membrane but excluding the nucleus: contains organelles, vesicles, and other inclusions.

However, when we look at where this word plasma came from, it seems to mean something completely different from any of the above definitions; Plasma in Latin means something that is moulded, while in Greek plassein means to mould, shape or form. The origins of this word are somewhat confusing, yet interesting.

It is like plasma once described a material like clay, then ultimately evolved into a word that is synonymous with a suspension. So the modern version of the word, in the context of blood and cells; plasma is the thing in which other things float about -- It's like a broth in soup.

I haven't found why the clear-fluid-part-of-blood is called plasma, so I am guessing that it's word origins have something to do with leeches and medieval humors.

What is interesting is that in naming blood plasma like something from which you can mould, the creators of this version of the word, kind of got it right. During the wound healing process known as hemostatis, the plasma part of the blood leaks out of the breech. This is that clear fluid that you might have seen leak from a cut, in it, are a host of small molecules that automatically link together, to form a scab. This linkage heals you in a kind of self-organizing way. So a better word for the clear fluid might have been auto-plasma, or automatic clay. Someone who has a deeper understanding of biology could dispute this point, since it's not actually the plasma itself that does the fixing, but rather the stuff that is suspended within it. To them, I would roll my eyes, and say that I'm speaking strictly in a phenomenological way. Hopefully they wouldn't challenge me on this point, because I can never really remember what phenomenological means.

Lets move onto the modern-physics version of the word. It turns out that the American Scientist Irving Langmuir who named ionized gas, plasma, did so because it reminded him of how blood carries around red and white corpuscles.2 Despite having named the ionized gas after a suspension, the original --mouldable-- meaning of the word still holds. A large part of mankind's effort to harness fusion energy is put into engineering the shape of plasma within very strong magnetic fields. This kind of plasma is not just a broth, but a broth who's shape can be altered and controlled -- like clay. Within this plasma, are the particles which we are trying to get close enough together so that they will fuse and release tremendous amounts of energy. This could very well create a new age for mankind -- the fusion age.

Since Irving Lagumuir's coining the name of this substance we have discovered that 99.999% of the visible matter of the universe is plasma. Coup d'état! This man accidentally named the state of 99.999% of all matter in the universe!5

To understand how things really work, we should probably get very good at understanding this state of matter, and how it relates to the machinations of our cosmos. Kids, forget about this string-theory nonsense and the higher dimensional imaginings of Mathematics... study plasma theory and experiment with plasma! Outside of the theoretical realm there are many different practical reasons to study this. Like I previously mentioned, plasma engineering will probably bring about the age of affordable exothermic fusion.

Unfortunately humanity is spending a large portion of it's fusion research and development budgets on the ITER. ITER stands for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. You can see the problem with the strategy in the name itself, specifically the first word of the name, international. Colossal amounts of money are being spent in managing the political and bureaucratic processes related to this project. The opportunity cost of such a move are mind boggling. If we placed this same money into smaller projects, all running down their own different avenues of research with smaller motivated teams -- all speaking the same language, we would get a lot farther a lot faster.

A lot farther in what direction? Well, a lot of humanity's problems can be linked back to the cost of energy. Are you hungry, ok, we will grow more nutrient rich food -- to do so we need cheap energy. You are thirsty, OK, let's hook up a fusion reactor to that desalination plant! Green house effect? Child's play, all we need is cheap, clean energy. Will fusion help us untangle giant bureaucratic debacles? I'm afraid not.

Do not despair, Michael Laberge of General fusion has described that there is a kind of Moore's law in fusion research4. This acceleration effect is happening despite the projects like ITER destroying money, time and manpower. Michael runs a small team, and they are trying to mash two atoms together with a combination of a fusion containment field mixed with the coolest motor head project I have ever heard of. He has built a large sphere full of heavy liquid metal, which will be smashed by 255 metal pistons all at the same time. This will cause a constructive wave front to propagate toward the fusion containment field at which point -- BANG! -- fusion. The process is designed to breed the atomic fuel needed for the next run of the reactor while capturing the energy into the liquid metal. He is expecting to get this process to repeat once per second. Now that's ambition.

Michael is a local hero, but he's not the only one trying to build a fusion reactor. The Y-combinator has announced that they are funding energy projects and there are various mom and pop fusion shops starting up in various locations around the United States.

  1. Suspension in the context of chemistry

  2. What the plasma

  3. Evidence against the big bang

  4. Michael Laberge's TED talk

  5. If you are a believer in the current cosmological dogma, you might blow this point off -- since you will undoubtedly believe in dark matter and dark energy, and all sorts of other things that we can't actually observe. This is because it agrees with your beautiful equations and it links into Einstein's dream of the, "theory of everything". A lot of the plasma cosmologists take issue with this, the big bang and the halting of experimental science. They say things like, "Once Stephen Hawking falls out of his chair, for the last time, we should be able to get back to this business of actually understanding how things work."3