Making the invisible visible

By Ken Shulman

There are probably only a handful of science museums around the world whose collections do not include a plasma globe created by Bill Parker ’74, SM ’93. Coming up with the modern design of that device “was definitely my 15 minutes of fame,” he jokes.

An artist, scientist, and entrepreneur, Parker spent much of his childhood in the basement laboratory of his parents’ Vermont home. While his junior high friends were building go-karts, he built a helium-neon laser. In high school, he shifted his attention to electrified gas plasmas, a medium of unbound electrons and ions that he calls “the most fabulous substance in the world.” He struck a deal with his teachers: if he handed in his homework, he could skip class and experiment with plasma thrusters that might one day propel spacecraft to Mars and beyond. Thanks to those experiments, he was named a finalist in the nationwide Westinghouse (now Regeneron) Science Talent Search.

Parker continued his plasma experiments while earning a bachelor’s in art and design. One day, he turned on the high-voltage power supply to ionize neon gas in a six-foot glass vacuum chamber, not realizing that the vacuum valve was closed. Instead of a stream of ionized exhaust, tendrils of plasma pulsated against the glass. “It was extraordinarily beautiful,” he recalls. “Like a neon lightning storm.”

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