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Now Every School Can Access a Fancy Plasma Physics Laboratory

Princeton's Plasma Physics Laboratory gives remote access to a plasma physics experiment

smithsonian.com

Modern scientific equipment can be staggeringly expensive. Take, for example, an instrument like a NanoSIMS probe, a instrument that lets scientists pick materials apart a few atoms at a time. There's a reason there are only 22 of them in the world. Even more widely used scientific equipment is expensive and requires a certain expertise to set up and run, and that often makes it unaffordable or impractical for schools. 

But there's a certain something—a power to drive curiosity and wonder—that comes from seeing science play out live. And the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is trying give more students access to that little frisson, by letting them work, remotely, with a piece of fancy gear.

A few years ago, the lab designed a small-scale plasma physics experiment that could be remotely controlled by computer. Now, says Physics Central, they've opened it up to the world: Princeton has released the Remote Glow Discharge Experiment to be used by anyone with an internet connection.

This experiment will let users (it's targeted at high school classes) adjust the strength of a pair of electromagnets, the pressure, and the voltage running across a gas-filled cylinder. If you do it right, the gas will ionize and emit a bright red and purple glow. Adjusting the strength of the magnets allows you to manipulate the now-visible plasma. The equipment is run in front of a camera, which feeds the whole thing back to your computer in real time.

There's a limit on the kinds of equipment schools can afford, but as science continues to advance, there's also a limit on how modern of an education students can get on older technology. Perhaps, as massive online open courses and other web-based educational services expand, so too will offerings for this sort of hands-on-mouse experience.

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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