On our planet, we inhabit a calm little oasis of ordinary solids, liquids and gases that is immersed in a perpetually blowing, roiling, flaring erupting substance of a very different kind, called plasma. Sometimes called the fundamental state of matter to distinguish it from its tamer cousins, plasma makes up more than 99 percent of the visible universe. The plasma side of the cosmic ledger includes the seething atmospheres and interiors of stars, the wind of particles that our sun flings outward into space, Earth’s cocoon-like magnetosphere, the tenuous wasteland between stars and galaxies, and fantastically energetic displays such as quasars, supernovas and parts of the compact spinning stars that spray out beams of x-rays like some kind of hellish fire hose.

When they are artificially produced and bottled up here on Earth, plasmas turn out to be extremely useful. We create plasmas each time we flip on a fluorescent light or a neon sign. Plasmas etch the tiniest circuit features on the microprocessor chips that are at the heart of our desktop computers. Carefully controlled clouds of plasma can "rain", or deposit, thin layers of materials onto surfaces as a crucial step in manufacturing industrial diamonds and superconducting films. Particle accelerators much more compact and powerful than any now in existence could emerge from experiments that are using intense plasma waves to push electrons up to relativistic speeds. Jets of plasma spin and maneuver orbiting satellites. Even without leaving Earth’s surface, however, laboratory experiments can shed light on the wider universe of plasma phenomena, as when the shock waves produced by laser beams striking a small spec of plasma help unravel the dynamics of an exploding star.

But no matter how cleverly we try to harness them, plasma sometimes revert to their unruly nature: Only after decades of research have physicists learned, by fits and starts, how to confine a plasma that is hotter than the sun’s core, with the goal of producing large power plants using the same processes that causes the sun and stars to shine–a phenomena called thermonuclear fusion. The long struggle to make a practical fusion devices partly reflects the challenge inherent in understanding plasma theoretically. Plasmas are so complex—equally rich in physics and frustration—that they often beggar all description, even by the most sophisticated theories and the most powerful supercomputers. (Adapted from James Glanz, The Pervasive State of Matter)