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Pinheiro, M. (2012). Plasma: the genesis of the word. PHILICA.COM Article number 363.

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Plasma: the genesis of the word

Mario J. Pinheirounconfirmed user (Department of Physics at IST, Universidade Tecnica de Lisboa)

Published in physic.philica.com

The historical roots of the word plasma are recalled. It is suggested that possibly at the beginning of the researches in low-pressure gas discharges the driving motivation was related to the psychic phenomena investigated by Sir William Crookes.

Article body

Michel Foucault wrote that objects and words intercross deeply, and
Nature only offer herself to our understanding through words;
without the right words, Nature will subsume in a fading
light [1]. This reasoning pushed us to recall how the"fourth state of matter" was denominated. We believe that understanding the genealogy of the word will throw some light to its roots, content and philosophy of this science. In fact, the word plasma comes from the Greek πλασμα and means "to mold", "to shape".

Jan Evangelista Purkynje (1787-1869), a notable Czech medical scientist (best known for his discovery of Purkinje cells),  has used this word for the first time to designate the reminescent translucid liquid that remains after completely removing the blood from all thecorpuscules (he also introduced the word protoplasm for the substance inside the cell). Faraday pointed out that matter can be classified in four states: solid, liquid, gas, and radiant (in his own words). The research on this new form of matter was initiated by Heinrich Geiβler(1814-1879), a glassblower, who invented the sealed glass tube (now called Geiβler tube). Julius Plücker (1801-1868), while professor at Bonn, published his results about the action of the magnet on the electric discharge in rarefied gases. With his pupil Johann Wilhelm Hittorf (1824-1914), he made many important discoveries in the spectroscopy of gases [2,3].

Later on, Sir William Crookes took again the term "radiant matter", coined by Faraday, to designate this new "form" of matter. In his own words:

«So distinct are these phenomena from anything which occurs in airor gas at ordinary tension, that we are led to assume that we arehere brought face to face with matter in a fourth state orcondition, a condition as far removed from the state of gas as a gasis from a liquid.» [4].

The invention of the radiometer by Crookes has led him to the study of rarefied gases and, in particular, to investigations on electric discharges inrarefied gases. This new line of research was open by the discovery of cathode rays by Wilhelm Hittorf in 1869. According to Crookes, cathode rays were a kind of matter in the ultra-gaseous state emitted by the cathode and had the dimensions of molecules. They were invisible, but they could turn perceptible by the phosphorescence that they induce on the walls of the glass tube, orby the shadows left behind by objects placed along their paths.

The researches done by Plücker, Hittorf and Crookes constitute the first fundamental observations of new phenomena that led to the new discipline of glow discharge plasma, dedicated to the study of a very complex medium out of equilibrium. A voltage were applied across two electrodes placed inside in an optically transparent vacuum envelope (with a pressure of the order of a few torr), usually made of pyrex glass or quartz. The region near the cathode was later on called the Hittorf-Crookes dark space; dark because the electronic density is not enough to ionize the gas. But experiments done in 1881 by J. J. Thomson have shown later that this "radiant matter" was, in fact, constituted by electrified corpuscules, later named electrons (a term coined by Johnstone Stoney [5]), the separate units of electricity, and that theory was abandoned. It is quite interesting to notice that some esoteric notions used by Crookes have been, possibly, at the historical root of the word plasma. The same pre-logical formulations were present at the genesis of Newton's mechanics, endowing the gravitic force with esoteric properties:

«This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets,    could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and power Being. [6]

But the word plasma may possibly had a previous meaning related to phantoms, ghosts and others interests pursued on by Sir William Crookes, and that ultimately led some people to denounce him as a not honest, or lucid, scientist. Let's cite just a small paragraph of his 1883 Bakerian Lecture, given to the Royal Society of London:

« No Will-o'-the-Wisp ever led the unwary traveller into so many pitfalls and sloughs of despond as the hunt for this phantom band had entrapped me.» [7]

Of course, we know that his open-mindedness has led him to investigate psychic phenomena with several famous spiritual mediums. But this fact does not undermine the great achievements done by this greatman of science, that ultimately made the first experimental observations of new phenomena, and build the grounds of this new area of scientific research, known as plasma science. Among his achievements, we may refer the invention of the spinthariscope, a remarkable particle's detector using a zinc sulfide screen to detect alpha particles, and the study of radioactive materials. And also the nowadays wonderful toy, the Crookes radiometer, which ultimately gave one of the first evidence of the existence of atoms and gave experimental support to the kinetic theory of gases.

Francis Chen in his renowned book on plasma science, advances with a meaning which contains some weird suggestion:

«The word 'plasma' seems to be a misnomer. It comes from the Greek πλασμα, -ατoςτó, which means something molded or fabricated. Because ofcollective behavior, it often behaves as if it had a mind of itsown» [8].

However, the use of this term to describe an ionized gas in a written paper is due to the Nobel prize winning American chemist Irving Langmuir (1881-1957) in 1928 [9]. It seems that Langmuir was reminded of the way blood plasma carries red and white corpuscles, in somehow similar process to an electrified fluid carrying electrons and ions [10].

This short note intended to recall the origin of the word, and itspre-logical epistemological viewpoint, sustaining at its beginningthe actual branch of plasmas science.


[1] Michel Foucault, Les Mots et les Choses, sec. VII, (Gallimard, Paris, 1966)

[2] J. Plücker and J. W. Hittorf, On the Spectra of Ignited Gases and Vapors, with especial regard to the different Spectra of the same elementary gaseous substance, Phil.Trans. Roy. Soc. of London 155 S.1-30 (1865)

[3] R. Tomaschek, Grimsehls Lehrbuch derphysik, vol. II, p. 302-333 (Teubner, Leipzig, 1932)

[4] William Crookes, Experiments on the Dark Space in Vacuum tubes, Proc. Roy. Soc. London 79 (528) 98-117 (1907)

[5] George Johnstone Stoney, 1812-1911. Proc. Roy. Soc. (London) 86,xx-xxxv. (1911/12)

[6] Isaac Newton, Philosophiae naturalis PrincipiaMathematica, in General Scholium, p. 1157 Ed. by Stephen Hawking (Penguin Books, London, 2002)

[7] William Crookes, The Bakerian Lecture-On Radiant Matter Spectroscopy: The Detection andwide Distribution of Yttrium, Phil. Trans. Roc. Soc. London 174 891-918 (1883)

[8] Francis F. Chen, Introduction to Plasma Physicsand Controlled Fusion (Plenum Press, NY, 1984)

[9] Irwing Langmuir, Oscillations in ionized gases,Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 14, 628(1928)

[10] Lewi Tonks, Am. J. Phys., 35 857 (1967)


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Pinheiro, M. (2012). Plasma: the genesis of the word. PHILICA.COM Article number 363.

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