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Credit: DMR, COBE, NASA, Two-Year Sky Map
Caption: Microwave image of the entire sky. To a radio telescope space is full.


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Electric Cosmos

The Universe

Plasma Cosmology

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Jan 28, 2005
Solid Plasma

The media are biased. Not the news media, the media of human sensation. Of all the things we might sense, we pick out only a few. Our sensory system arose as an adaptation to the exigencies of living on the surface of a stony planet. One consequence is that sensations we classify as "solid"--things that are opaque, reflective, resistant to pressure, sharply bounded--seem more "real" than other classes of "states." The prototypical "real" substance is stone.

It took a long time for people to recognize the reality of such things as air--transparent, indefinite boundaries, indistinct resistance. People had to accumulate a lot of experience with "derivative effects" before they filled in the gap in their "solid" senses with the concept of a "gas."

It's taken even longer to fill in the gap around the concept of electricity. The aurora--a "glowing vacuum"--seems spooky and "unreal." To produce the aurora, electric currents flow in "empty tubes" that are several kilometers in diameter. The currents generate light and radio waves and x-rays that consume more power than is produced by all our "solid" coal-burning, oil-fired and water-driven generators. These currents are comprised of widely separated (compared to our usual experiences of density) charged particles.

Irving Langmuir called the medium that carried these currents "plasma" because of its lifeblood-like behavior, and the name stuck. But astrophysicists talk about them in euphemisms: solar "winds," "rains" of electrons, "impacts" of ions, "clouds" of ionized gas. At least the words seem more solid, more real, than the thin ethereal plasma.

But our perceptions are no longer confined to biological senses operating on the surface of a stony planet. Most of our perceptions of the universe now come from electronic sensors, many of which are located in plasma. Their sensations are almost entirely of electric and magnetic qualities.

For them, plasma is the primary substance of "reality." For them, the universe is composed of electrical currents flowing in networks of circuits coupled across scale differences from the galactic to the atomic. For them, the widely separated particles of stone and gas that we call "planets" and "stars" are barely noticeable dust motes, ethereal specks caught in the web of circuitry. For them, plasma is "solid."

Our artistry and the tools we've made with it have enabled us to reach out from the inheritance of our biological origins to touch the electrical "solidity" of the cosmos. But our thoughts and theories have yet to catch up. The book of future cosmology will be written in the language of plasma.


David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Amy Acheson
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Mel Acheson, Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
Ev Cochrane, C.J. Ransom, Don Scott, Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman
  WEBMASTER: Michael Armstrong

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