I got into Plasma Physics quite by accident. Well, maybe not sheer accident, but by Providence, perhaps. By all rights, I never should have been even associated with such esteemed luminaries in the field, such as Frank Chen, arguably the man who singlehandedly defined how we should go about making nuclear fusion happen. Amongst others. These are all intellectual giants with multiple Ph.Ds and lists of publications a mile long. I have precisely one-half of an electrical engineering degree from El Camino Community College, having dropped out of the program to answer the call of the North. It was my intention at the time, in 1976, to pretty much live life "with the bark still on" to quote one particular Western writer.
I'd always been a bit of a science and electronics nerd, but as I faced a career of sitting at a drafting table designing operational amplifiers for the rest of my life, Alaska seemed more attractive all the time. After some heart-wrenching soul searching, I decided to leave the high-tech life behind. I pretty much kissed goodbye all prospects of attaining any credibility, much less a name, in something as rarefied as physics research.
It didn't work.
There were a few detours along the way, but despite my rural surroundings and self-imposed simplicity, the inner nerd had never been properly killed off. In fact, I don't think he even took a nap.
The first indication that things were not quite working out the way I planned was the day I arrived in Fairbanks, in August of 1976, when I discovered I actually had a job. I'm still not quite sure how that happened. It was as a control room operator at KTVF, the CBS affiliate TV station in Fairbanks. I figured I could earn a few bucks at the little backwater station, and then go out to be a "real" Alaskan, after saving up a dollar or two. Nothing much could possibly be happening in Fairbanks, anyway...being at the end of the known universe, such as it was.
Error number one.
I happened to arrive at KTVF when Fairbanks was becoming the center of everything....the Alaska Pipeline was soon to begin operation, and every politician on the planet descended on the TV station to express his opinion, pro and con. I met mayors, senators, congressmen, governors, and Indian Chiefs. Governors and wannabe governors knew my name, if only because it was my job to record political spots for them.
To skip a few minor events in between, I soon became chief engineer of KJNP, a 50,000 watt A.M. station about 15 miles outside of Fairbanks in the little town of North Pole, where I've lived for 31 years now. After crawling around inside the monstrous transmitter and climbing the 420 foot towers for a decade or so, I got an interesting call from a Dr. Wong, who ran the UCLA plasma physics department. He said he was building an Arctic research facility near Fairbanks, and that he'd learned I was one of the few people in the state who knew how a radio transmitter worked, much less a 50,000 watt behemoth. He was putting together a 1 million watt transmitter system for poking the Aurora Boralis and learning something about the Northern Lights. Like many other physicists, Dr. Wong felt that if we could figure out how the Northern Lights worked, we could also figure out how to make nuclear fusion. History has shown this to be largely correct.
So, in the fall of 1994, I found myself making the transition from broadcast engineer to plasma physicist....all without anything resembling a degree....just because I knew how to crank out a lot of radio frequency energy. Actually, my title with UCLA was "Development Engineer," a semi-consultant position, which actually paid me more than some of the bona fide physicists I worked with....if only because of some quirks in the Alaska State wage laws. But, regardless of my actual academic position, I found myself fully accepted by the physics community, invited to all the major plasma physics conventions, and even giving joint lectures with my exalted peers. So, just as my "accidental" employment at KTVF put me in intimate contact with every political figure of import to Alaska, my accidental encounter with Dr. Wong allowed me to rub shoulders with the foremost names in plasma physics, Frank Chen, Raoul Sagdaev, Dennis Papadapoulis, Mike Trimpi, and others.
It's all about being in the right place at the right time. I wish I could tell you how to do it, but I don't have a clue how I managed it, myself.
Now....enough about me....this is really about Plasma Physics. Most of the universe is made up of plasma...the fourth state of matter. The more we know about plasma, the more we know about the universe. The Sun is made of plasma...most of the wispy material in intergalactic space is plasma....in fact, the Genesis account of Creation in the Bible makes some not-too-subtle implications of a plasma-like state...given in somewhat "ethereal" terms.
We don't see too many examples of plasma on Earth...which really gives us a narrow vision of our world. You see plasma in flourescent lights. You see it in a lightning bolt. Ancient mariners saw it in the form of "St. Elmo's Fire." In Alaska, we see it in the Aurora Borealis. And, most recently, of course, you see it in plasma displays. All these examples are either fleeting, or somewhat "unnatural." However, "out there," plasma is the normal state of being.
Interestingly, as poetic as plasma is, there isn't much that rhymes with it. By a bit of a stretch, you can make "asthma" rhyme...and by a bigger stretch, miasma. During a long late experiement, a few of us were thinking of words that rhyme with plasma, and about all we could come up with was "Hasma." As in "Who has'ma plasma? I knew I left it around here somewhere."
But, poetic it is. Plasma physics research is so fascinating that three books of mine have written themselves...with possibly more to follow. (Plasma Dreams, Steel Stonehenge, and Vengeance is Mine).
The study of physics is good for the soul. Things make sense in physics....but not TOO MUCH sense. It is a universe ruled by order....but we still don't know all the rules. Plasma physics is the easiest branch of physics to study, for the most part. You can do "big science" on a small science budget. My novels tell you how you can do it, amongst other things.
Who has'ma plasma? Hopefully anyone with an inquiring mind who might read one of my books.
Causes Eric Nichols Supports
Free Burma Rangers, Partners Ministries (Thailand), Literacy council of Alaska, Access Alaska.