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Ask any roomful of high school students to name the four states of matter, and chances are they'll laugh at the question. Everybody knows there are only three states of matter: solid, liquid, gas -- right?

Wrong. They will be very surprised to learn that 99 percent of the visible universe is composed of none of the above, but exists instead in a "plasma state," often referred to as the fourth state of matter.

Very few of us know what plasmas are, likely confusing them with the straw-colored liquid administered to wounded troops on MASH re-runs. The plasma state is a gaseous collection of electrically charged particles with nearly equal numbers of negative particles and positive ions. Plasmas have their own unique qualities just as solids, liquids and gases do. Though they can exist at low temperatures, they typically come into existence when gases are heated to very high temperatures.

Plasmas in their myriad forms and applications are all around us, serving us and making our lives better in many ways. They light up our offices and homes, make our computers and electronic equipment work. They drive lasers and particle accelerators, help clean up the environment, pasteurize foods, and make tools corrosion-resistant. Someday, they may drive spaceships and heat our homes. To paraphrase Churchill, never has so much of what is around us been understood and appreciated by so few.

It is in these applications that the social and economic importance of plasmas lie -- and where the concerns of today's plasma scientists lie. Technological applications typically grow out of knowledge -- out of pure science performed to gain understanding. The stronger the scientific understanding, the more benefit we are likely to extract from our knowledge. In the case of plasmas, though, the many technologies that employ plasmas are built on an aging foundation of basic knowledge. Core activity in plasma science, a 1995 report from the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council (NRC) warned, is "dangerously small." The steady stream of technological advance, which is based for the most part on research done in the 1960s and 1970s, is at risk of drying up unless its scientific headwaters are replenished.

Alarming though it is, the NRC report was not news to the scientific community. A study done in 1986 called the Brinkman report reached many of the same conclusions, stating that direct support for basic plasma-physics research had "practically vanished" in the United States.

The problem is that plasma science is not the stuff of headlines; it is little understood or appreciated by the public, media, educational community and policy-makers. As a result, support for basic research, and the pace of technological innovations stemming from plasma science are all impeded.

Plasma's problems are exacerbated by the fact that its applications reach across a wide spectrum of technologies and businesses. No single application dominates; no single scientific discipline claims it; there are no "departments of plasma science," and plasma science is rarely a tenure-track profession. No single agency dominates government support as is common with other fields of science. Plasma science has been called a science without a home.

The result is apparent. "There is no effective structure in place to develop the basic science that underlies the many applications of plasmas," the NRC report states, "and if the present trend continues, plasma science education and basic plasma science research are likely to decrease both in quality and quantity."

Because plasma science has more applications than advocates, several companies, individuals, and associations joined together to create the Coalition for Plasma Science. The goal is deliberately transparent: to attract more interest to the science among academics, school-age talent, the media, and policy-makers. More coordination of plasma science activities among government agencies ranging from NASA to the Department of Defense will also help significantly.

Learn more about the Coalition for Plasma Science, its activities and events, and how your organization can become a member.

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