Image of Parker's Plasma Sculptures Parker's Plasma Sculptures
Plasma Sculptures

Sometimes described as “controlled lightning,” William Parker’s hand-blown glass plasma sculptures contain a mix of noble gases that are ionized by high-voltage, high-frequency signals. Parker “invented” the modern plasma globe in 1971 while conducting undergraduate physics research. Studying gaseous fuels for electrical rocket engines, he accidentally left a valve on, thereby filling his test chamber with neon and nitrogen. The result was spectacular: streams of glowing colored light (just as seen in the pieces on display). Parker’s “invention” was actually a rediscovery of what Nikola Tesla learned almost a century earlier: electricity and plasma will produce light. It was after Parker first exhibited a custom plasma globe at the Exploratorium in San Francisco that plasma became popular. Maybe you have seen plasma globes on Star Trek, at an amusement park, a nearby science center, or even at home. Many artists at MIT have worked with plasma, most notably Alejandro Siña who created the “Glowing Needles” installation in the Alewife subway station of the MBTA Red Line.

The exhibition opened with the display of Truth Tree and Nuit Blanche (Sleepless Night). In the fall of 2011, Fire Flower replaced Nuit Blanche, which, unfortunately, ceased functioning after two decades of display at the MIT Museum. Parker writes of Fire Flower: “This piece has the same plasma ‘image’ as the one I first made in Bldg. 20 lo those 40 years ago. I only had a few gases to play with back then—the gas mix is just neon with a smidgen of nitrogen—but it’s pretty much a reproduction of what I saw that changed my life.”

Plasma Sculptures
William Parker
Truth Tree, c.1987
Nuit Blanche, c. 1986
Fire Flower, c. 1984

photo: Michael Cardinali for MIT Museum

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