Science! It Works, Bitches!

First things first, many thanks to Randal Munroe of xkcd fame for providing me with a perfect title for this post.

Next item of importance on the list is to remind folks that I am a graphic artist, not a scientist. Those of you who are scientists – particularly physics nerds – will likely read this post and think, So what? You think you’re Tesla now, dimbulb? But for me, the little science experiment I held in my kitchen last night was really quite something and an accomplishment to be proud of.

It all started last weekend when I was doing some cleaning and came across my old plasma lamp. I’m sure most of you have seen one of these devices before. Here is a photo of me playing with mine.


Yeah, see, you know exactly what I’m talking about, huh? Thought so.

I’ve been reading a lot of cool stuff about physics lately, and so when I found the plasma lamp, I started recalling what I’d learned about it in college. Basically, the device sends an electrical current through the gas inside the sphere, ionizing it so we see light*. Touching the sphere grounds it, so that the current runs through the person to the floor.

And that got me to thinking…

…if the current is running through me when I touch it, as evidenced by the behavior of the bolt of electricity, then it should be able to excite other gases outside the sphere…

…gases such as those found inside a fluorescent light bulb, in fact!

So I called the kids into the kitchen and we performed a little experiment, the results of which were highly successful and are shown below.


Simply by holding a fluorescent light bulb close to the plasma lamp, I was able to get the gases inside it to start ionizing. With a few twists of my wrist to expose more of the bulb to the current flowing from the sphere, I eventually got the entire bulb lit without it being plugged into any socket!


Next we tried it with a long fluorescent tube light with even faster success. Almost immediately, the tube lit up like a makeshift lightsaber.

So there you go. Electricity – even tiny currents – can excite gases, creating plasmas and producing light.

Gives me an idea for an urban legend. I could start telling people if they fill their lungs with Helium and stand under high-tension power lines at night, they’ll actually be able to see their chest cavity light up.

*If you want a more detailed explanation of what’s going on at the sub-atomic level, you’ll have to speak up. I don’t want to bore anyone unnecessarily.  KEVIN WOLF HAS ASKED ME TO BORE THE REST OF YOU WITH DETAILS.

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About kirkstarr

I draw pictures for a living.
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17 Responses to Science! It Works, Bitches!

  1. Kevin Wolf says:

    Rats, if only this post had contained a more detailed explanation of what’s going on at the sub-atomic level. Oh, well.
    Good story anyway, Kirk.

  2. Toe-Knee says:

    Interestingly you should be able to get the tube to light up just by holding it in one hand and touching the lamp with the other. Tons of fun for the kids isn't it.

  3. Kirk says:

    "Tons of fun for the kids isn't it." They loved it. My daughter Amanda took the photos, by the way.

  4. tom says:

    Excellent, very informative post, with equally excellent and informative photographs by the talented young Amanda. Just riddle me this, Batman: was the plasma ball in the same box as your old bong collection? 😉

  5. Kirk says:

    "Just riddle me this, Batman: was the plasma ball in the same box as your old bong collection? ;-)"Ha! My art director asked me almost that exact same question. Weird. I thought cutting my hair short and studying molecular physics would make people think I wasn't a total burnout. Guess I'm not fooling anyone. 😛

  6. Kirk says:

    OK, then. You asked for it…The ball in the center of the
    plasma lamp emits an electrical charge. The electricity moves, as it
    should, from the higher charged area (source) to the lower charged area
    (glass surface). Electrons slam into the atoms of the gas (I believe
    the gas in my lamp is xenon,
    based on color) and excite the atoms, elevating them to a higher energy
    level. They don't stay there long; about 10 to the negative sixth power
    seconds or something. As the atoms return to their normal state, they emit a
    sub-atomic particle called a photon. When that happens, light is created. This process is called ionization.The
    same thing occurs in plasma TVs, on the surface of the sun, and
    (obviously) inside fluorescent light bulbs. Oh, and in Cylon blaster
    ammunition.

  7. Steve Betz says:

    Nicely done! Electric current can also be used to induce a magnetic field. Have fun with that!

  8. R.G. Ryan says:

    I double-dog dare you to stick your tongue on it!!!!!

  9. bouche says:

    Awesome, awesome, awesome. I discovered something cool like that when I was 5 and stuck magnets to our color TV at home. I thought it was the most awesome thing… My mother on the other hand nearly had a stroke. This was one of the many science experiments that got me into trouble as a kid.

  10. Jay says:

    You will now be known as: Lord Uncle Darth Fester.RIIIISE.

  11. Brown Suga' says:

    This is really cool, but it's been nearly 10 years since I last studied physics and to my little arty-farty brain it's like receiving the Gospel firsthand. So I'll favourite this and re-read it later when I've had enough caffeine.

    LMAO@ Jay's The Skywalkers meets The Addams.

  12. Austin1234 says:

    You mean you can't fill your lungs with Helium and stand high-tension power lines and see your chest cavity light up? Dang.

  13. HA! this is wonderful!!!*jots down Helium on shipping list*

  14. [This is the coolest, dude] LOL I love it! Where can I get a lava lamp to try this myself at home? I was a nerd in high school and still am, so no bongs or lamps of my own…Any offers at there?

  15. Kirk says:

    "Where can I get a lava lamp to try this myself at home?"Can't do it with a lava lamp; you'll need a plasma lamp like this one here at amazon. Thirty bucks sure beats the $150 I paid for mine back in '86. 😦

  16. Thirty bucks sure beats the $150 I paid for mine back in '86.
    Yes, but you were a pioneer in plasma lamps back in the day and now you've recycled it for another use. A worthwhile investment over all. ; )

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