Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Super Colliders and St. Elmo's Fire

Plasma is a peculiar state of matter - a gas with electrons unbound from their positively charged counterparts. This renders plasmas highly conductive. Plasmas make up stars and lightning and St. Elmo's fire (the weather phenomenon, the movie remains a mystery). Plasma is also in lamps and neon signs and some television screens.

Physicists have long utilized plasma to accelerate particles. Plasma acceleration, relatively cheap, is becoming an important part of the future of particle smashing and may help unlock the secrets of the universe. Of course, some people think Judd Nelson already did that.

Here is the wikipedia note on the name of the movie:

The title and subsequent song come from a quote at the climax of the movie, when Billy is comforting Jules: "It's St. Elmo's Fire. Electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere. Sailors would guide entire journeys by it, but the joke was on them... there was no fire. There wasn't even a St. Elmo. They made it up. They made it up because they thought they needed it to keep them going when times got tough, just like you're making up all of this. We're all going through this. It's our time at the edge."

Billy's statement is technically incorrect, in that:

  • St. Elmo's fire is quite real, although it is indeed not fire, but an electrical phenomenon.
  • St. Elmo's fire didn't appear in the sky; rather it gathered around the masts of the ship, thus making it impossible to chart a course by.
  • "St. Elmo" was the nickname for two Roman Catholic saints: Saint Erasmus of Formiae, and Saint Peter Gonzalez known as "St Telmo" or "St. Elmo" in the Spanish and Portuguese speaking world. Together, they are considered the Patron Saints of sailors— however it is unknown if these people ever lived.
Thanks for nothing Rob Lowe.