Global Worm­ing

Cosmos - - Spectrum - — AN­DREW MASTER­SON

THE GREAT SCI­EN­TIST Nikola Tesla was many things, but an ad­ver­tis­ing copy­writer wasn’t one of them. When, there­fore, as part of his on­go­ing re­search into high volt­age phe­nom­ena, he placed a pow­er­ful elec­trode in­side some glass filled with neon gas and switched it on he called the re­sult – a glo­ri­ous, touch-sen­si­tive ball of minia­ture lightning – “an in­ert gas dis­charge tube”.

Per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, given it was lum­bered with a name that evoked images of gas­troin­testi­nal end-play, Tesla’s in­ven­tion, patented in 1894, re­mained a cu­rios­ity used only by elec­tron­ics stu­dents and re­searchers for decades.

Al­most a cen­tury later, in the 1980s, how­ever, renamed as, var­i­ously, ‘the Tesla globe’ or ‘the plasma globe’, the de­vice had be­come a hot seller in gift shops ev­ery­where.

Thanks to an in­verter that boosts a low-volt­age DC power sup­ply through an elec­tronic os­cil­la­tor and into a high­volt­age trans­former, the elec­trode at the cen­tre of a Tesla globe’s sealed world sets off plasma fil­a­ments through an at­mos­phere com­pris­ing no­ble gases held at near-room tem­per­a­ture. The fil­a­ments ex­tend to the glass in­su­la­tor, pro­duc­ing gor­geous writhing elec­tric dis­charge flows.

Apart from their ap­peal as house­hold nov­el­ties – and their de­ploy­ment as teach­ing aids in schools, uni­ver­si­ties and mu­se­ums – Tesla globes aren’t ac­tu­ally use­ful for much. But that’s hardly the point. They are won­der­ful ex­am­ples of the re­sults of hu­man in­quiry – per­haps all the more so pre­cisely be­cause they can’t re­ally be bent to the tasks of killing oth­ers or en­rich­ing one­self.

In­ge­nu­ity cou­pled with sci­en­tific re­search, many peo­ple be­lieve, is only re­ally com­mend­able if the re­sult can be used to solve a real-world prob­lem.

It’s a de­bat­able po­si­tion. In­ven­tions don’t al­ways have to be prac­ti­cal. Some­times they can just be beau­ti­ful.

IM­AGE Mon­key Busi­ness Images / Getty Images

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