A couple of weeks ago, I was bemoaning the fact that I know nothing about anything. I stand by that position. However, I did just (maybe) learn the answer to one of my questions.

Yesterday, we took our son to the physics fair at UW. There I learned that it is EXTREMELY difficult for physics graduate students to explain anything about anything to civilians like me. One project that we looked at concerned plasma. I asked what plasma was, and got the response “ionized gas.” I asked what that was, and got another answer requiring a follow-up. I hope that university physics departments are teaching their students not only how to understand complicated concepts but also how to distill them so that the layman can at least get a sense. At times, I felt like I was having the following conversation with the student presenters:

Me: What’s that?

Them: A shmog.

Me: What’s a shmog?

Them: Two shmigs.

Me: What’s a shmig?

Them: Half a shmog.

But, I did learn one thing, getting back to my original point. I mentioned two weeks ago that I couldn’t start a fire without a match, and that I couldn’t make a match because I didn’t know what a match is. There was a project yesterday involving using radiant infrared heat (??) to light a match. I took the opportunity to ask a grad student what a match is. He wasn’t positive, but he thought it was a stick of wood that had sulfur and some iron on the end. The sulfur and iron for some reason burst into flame at a relatively low temperature, and the heat caused by the friction of striking the match is enough to set this process in motion.

I don’t know if that is right, and I still couldn’t make a match, but it is at least a description I can understand.

I know that I count among my vast readership one scientist and one former engineer. Gentleman, have I at least grasped one piece of the modern world correctly? Musicians, lawyers, weavers, please explain this world to me.

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6 Responses to Matches

  1. BlueLoom says:

    Sorry. In a post-apocalyptic world, we weavers could probably make you some clothing that will keep you warm, but we couldn’t start a fire or create a pot in which you could make some soup for yourself and your family.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Another scientist reader here (your distant cousin, the physicist). I don’t know much about matches but I could explain a plasma better than that! Sorry you met such poor representatives of the field.

  3. O not so distant cousin, please do explain plasma. And anything else from the earlier post that you can explain. My army of readers wants to know – or I do, anyway.

  4. Sylvia says:

    Hmm.. I am a bit shy to explain physics on a blog but here goes. Plasma is actually a form of matter distinct from the ones with which we are more familiar (solid, liquid, gas). In solids, liquids, and gases, matter is made up of atoms. An atom is made up of positively and negatively charged particles in equal quantity, which are strongly bound to each other in the atom. In a plasma, the positive and negative particles have so much energy that they can’t all stay together in an atom; a plasma is characterized by free electrically-charged particles. The Sun is a plasma, for example. So is a neon lamp. And so is St. Elmo’s fire — the glow discharge you see right before you get struck by lightening.

    • You are a hell of a lot clearer than those grad students. I think I get it. A plasma sounds like it is at a particularly high-energy state, and it is that high energy (rather than just temperature) which makes it a plasma. I am guessing that certain substances cannot exist in a plasma state, like water.

      Incidentally, I met a civil engineer who explained what a road is (she found the question very weird but then got into it). There is a bed of gravel (which I think is just small rocks) and sand under a layer of asphalt. Asphalt is made up of sand and rock and I think something called Portland cement. You heat it and mix it all together and spread it out and flatten it and then it cools into a hard substance. In the case of the roads in Madison, in the winter it undergoes 40-degree temperature fluctuations and develops massive potholes.

      Thanks for your excellent explanation!

  5. Sylvia says:

    Temperature is one form of energy. But often a plasma is created by making a very large electric field (like in the St. Elmo’s fire case)

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