Flying with the Fourth State of Matter

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September 10, 2016 | Originally published by Date Line: September 10 on

A scaled-down gale blows over a flat plate set inside the tabletop wind tunnel. Despite the low lighting and hazy Plexiglas view portals, we can clearly see the frenzied fluttering of streamer ribbons, called telltales, in the field of little wind vanes that carpets the exposed test surface inside.

At first, each unruly telltale flies every which way, clear evidence of unsteady air flows gusting within. “OK, that’s off,” the researcher says.

“Here’s on…” Almost like a sorcerer’s spell, an otherworldly, blue-violet halo emerges at the front of the plate and hovers corona-like, casting peculiar purple shadows onto the walls. The telltales meanwhile become suddenly and strangely obedient, instantly swinging round in near unison, aligned by an insistent new wind.

“Off,” she says. The ribbons flap arbitrarily as the eerie electric flame fades. “On.” More purple haze and parallel ribbons.

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