Madame Eve Dalrymple stood before the most distinguished men of science, prepared to demonstrate absolute proof that atoms could be taken apart. Behind her, stretched out on a long, crowded experimental table, lay her apparatus, a gleaming monster of glass and gutta percha. She spoke.
“Gentlemen,” and a snigger escaped from the crowd. Eve paused, then went on. “Gentlemen, today I reveal to you a true wonder. We call it the electron.”
Eve stepped behind her table, pushed a lock of dark hair behind her ear, and electrified the vacuum pump. A hiss of sparks jumped from the metal clips, then the pump rattled and chugged to life. Eve connected the high-voltage transformer to the crystal-clear glass tube. Gradually, in the darkness, a blue-white glow, like some strange writhing snake, appeared within the glass.
“All the great thinkers in history,” Eve went on over the gasps and calls from the audience, “have considered the atom to be the indivisible particle, the primordial element from which all else is built. But within this simple glass tube fly particles thousands of times smaller than the atom itself. We—“ and with a hiss of air, the glow vanished. The vacuum pump continued for a moment, grew louder, then shut off with a metallic clank. Eve rushed behind the table to assess the damage. Bad, but repairable, she decided quickly.
“There will be a delay, gentlemen . . .” she began. A short while later–or what she thought was a short while–Eve looked up. Her workshop was empty. The dozen or so town boys who had come to watch her latest demonstration had vanished, off to catch frogs or play a game of baseball before supper.
Eve stood alone in her empty workshop. Really it was only the back room of her father’s livery building. The shelves and cabinets she had scavenged or built for herself lay filled with the results of Eve’s constant tinkering. The smells of ozone and axle grease filled the air.
Eve knew the boys hadn’t come so much to learn as to stare at this strange creature, a girl who could fix things and “do magic” as they called it. Well, it was magic, at least to her. Eighteen years old that spring and leaving for University in just weeks, Eve Dalrymple had found her passion and joy in the study of modern science. She followed with breathless wonder the latest discoveries –Roentgen and his x-rays, Becquerel with his mysterious uranium, the great JJ Thomson’s electron –and she dreamed of being part of it. Someday, she thought. Someday soon.
Eve returned to her repairs. She knew the boys would be back.
* * * * *
The blue-white snake Eve Dalrymple created in her laboratory is called plasma. It is sometimes called “the fourth state of matter,” but this is silly for a number of reasons. Most importantly, plasma was not only the first kind of matter formed in the universe, it remains today the universe’s most common form of ordinary (not dark*) matter.
*We still have no idea what dark matter is, but it almost certainly isn’t plasma.
Protons and electrons are different. No one knows why. But the fact of their difference is what makes the world possible. Protons are found in the nucleus, a spot so small that if the atom were the size of a baseball field, the nucleus would be a ladybug crawling in the grass just behind the pitcher’s mound. The nucleus is much, much smaller than the atom.
All around the bases of our baseball field atom are the electrons, tiny bits of fluff that have (compared to the nucleus) practically no mass, but the same electric charge as the proton. This equal charge but wildly unequal mass makes all the difference. Electrons are free spirits. They won’t stay in the nucleus even if you try to attach one of those police collars. They fly all over, hang out at the outskirts of the atom. And that’s what made Eve’s snake.
When Eve electrified the tiny bit of gas in her tube, electrons flew through, knocked loose other electrons with a powerful, energy-giving jolt, and thereby created a plasma. That plasma, a soup of free electrons and positively-charged atoms missing one or more electrons, started to glow as electrons fell back into their atoms, releasing their stored energy as visible (and also invisible) light. You do the same thing every time you flip on a fluorescent bulb. That’s right, you are a destroyer (and creator) of atoms!
The plasma inside a bulb is peanuts compared with the much more common plasma found in the Sun and other stars. Here not just a few electrons, but essentially all the electrons are stripped off, creating a wild party of free electrons and bare, positively charged nuclei. The nuclei fly about frantically, heated to ridiculous temperatures, repelled on all sides by similar bare nuclei with fierce and concentrated positive charge.
Occasionally two of these nuclei find themselves on a collision course. They do everything they can to avoid one another, pushing back with all their might with their two bare positive charges. But it’s no good. The heat is so great that the two nuclei collide and (maybe, if things are just right) stick. Three such collisions can fuse hydrogen into helium. The star has turned on. Thermonuclear fusion has released energy as for hydrogen nuclei stick to make one helium nucleus. Add up all the masses of what went in and what came out, and you find that a little mass is missing in your equation. Where did it go? You’re using that mass right now. Every time you blink, or move a finger, or even think a thought, you’re using energy that began deep inside the Sun, energy that came from the Sun burning up a little of its mass. Mass is just concentrated energy. Energy is mass set free.
PS This little piece on plasma was requested by a colleague and fellow blogger. There you go, Doug. Is that chicken soup enough?
By the way, the beginning of this entry is from a (so far unpublished) book I’ve written called “Atoms and Eve.” If there are any publishers out there, I’m still looking . . . Oh, and DON’T go to the Amazon page for my first book and look at the sales rank. ‘K?