November 15, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Plasma May Revamp Cosmology

A “diverse new field” of astrophysics is poised to revolutionize our understanding of stars, energetic galaxies, and perhaps the entire universe.  The properties and interactions of plasma, that hot, electrically-charged gas that makes up the sun and stars, have not been considered as often as matter and light have in astronomy.  A set of top ten questions about plasma astronomy was recently set down at a workshop for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), according to PhysOrg.
    “Plasma physics governs much of the behavior of the visible universe at all scales, from tokamaks to extra-galactic jets that are 10 billion times larger than the solar system,” said Stewart Prager, Director of the PPPL (the article explained that “A tokamak is a type of magnetic fusion energy experiment”).  Since plasma (often called the fourth state of matter) responds to electromagnetism – a much stronger force than gravity – the new proposed research will bring together “experimentalists, astronomers, and computational scientists to identify the major puzzles at this intersection of laboratory physics and space science, and to map out new strategies for better understanding the plasma universe.

If you thought the universe was pretty well figured out, wait till we see what comes from plasma cosmology.  “Often, a detailed understanding of the plasma physics under the specific space and astrophysical conditions holds the key to many long-standing mysteries,” the article said.  Mysteries imply basic misunderstandings in our current science.  Can fundamental changes to our thinking be in store?  No one yet knows; science is tentative, not absolute.  Interdisciplinary approaches are likely to challenge basic assumptions and bring outside-the-box thinking to stale modes of inquiry.  The universe could look very different to future astronomers, just as it differs today from what astronomers thought they knew in 2000, 1900, 1800, 1700, 1600, ….

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