Matter

Plasma: Your Universe Isn’t Made of What You Think

If I asked you to name the fundamental states of matter, more than likely you’d reel off solid, liquid, and gas. But if you’re a bit savvier, you’d know that those three aren’t the only states that matter can take—in fact, they’re not even the most abundant.

Plasma is the fourth fundamental state of matter. It’s a lot like a gas, except its atoms have been ionised: the electrons have been stripped from their nuclei, creating a sea of distinct, positively and negatively charged particles. In gases, electrons are bound to their nuclei, but in plasma, they’re free to move about. For this reason, plasmas are often called ionised (or electrically charged) gases.

Plasma can be created by heating gases or by subjecting them to strong electromagnetic fields. Though it doesn’t naturally make up the things we see, eat, breathe or live in, man-made plasmas can be found quite readily on Earth in fluorescent light bulbs and neon signs, which use electricity to ionise the gas inside of them, creating glowing plasma. Very hot flames and lightning are also examples of plasma. But most significantly, plasmas are naturally found in stars, thanks to their incredibly hot temperatures, and in enormous gas clouds in the spaces between galaxies, often stretched into huge webs and filaments. Because of this, plasma is the most abundant state of matter in the universe.

Fun fact: the states of matter don’t end with plasma. Bose–Einstein condensates and neutron-degenerate matter also exist, which are only observable in extreme conditions, as well as a couple of theoretical states.

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I might’ve forgotten to post this a little while ago. But seriously, you should read this amazing, in-depth piece by Elmo Keep. If you’ve ever thought about going to Mars and what it will take to colonize it, then this is will be the best thing for you. Right after working on this I listened to The Martian by Andy Weir on audiobook and it discusses a lot of the same problems written in this article. That was pretty cool.

Anyways, I did quite a number of illustrations to go along with this. Many thanks to AD Erich Nagler at Matter who had the common sense to stop me from using baby colors on this project!

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Plasma, The Most Common Phase of Matter in the Universe

Get to know plasma, the most common, but probably least understood, phase of matter in the universe!