Seife: Sun in a Bottle

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Charles Seife, Sun in a Bottle : The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking. (New York : Viking, 2008. 294 pages; illustrated with line drawings and 8 pages of black and white photographs; with notes, bibliography, and index.

Early in the twentieth century, physicists discovered fusion, a nuclear process whereby two typically light-weight atomic nuclei come close enough together to bond into the nucleus of a new, heavier atom. This new atom has a mass that is less than the sum of its parts so, as we know from Einstein's famous equation, energy is released that is equivalent to the missing mass.

Fusion reactions are what makes our Sun shine and containing those fusion reactions on Earth—putting the "Sun in a bottle", to use Seife's evocative phrase—has been a taunting siren, always just out of reach but promising everlasting fame to the ones who conquers it, and unlimited energy to the rest of us.

Author Seife tells the story of the scientists and their attempts to master fusion, and he covers all the high points. He begins his story in the early days of the fusion research that led to the hydrogen bomb and the optimism and force-of-nature personality of Edward Teller.

Then there was the curious case of Ronald Richter, a German-speaking scientist who was director of a fusion reactor facility on Heumul Island, in Argentina.

On March 25, 1951, Argentina announced that it had designed such a bottle [to contain fusion]. Argentina's scientists were claiming they had solved humanity's energy problems. It was a few days before the Greenhouse tests, and Ivy Mike [US fusion-bomb tests] was months away. The United States had not yet liberated fusion energy, but Argentina's president, Juan Perón, was gleefully bragging about having generated "thermonuclear reactions" and harnessing the power of the sun. [p. 75]

Richter and Perón were wrong. Other approaches are fully covered: magnetic confinement, "pinch" reactors, Tokamaks, and "inertial" confinement (blasting tiny pellets with powerful lasers), not to mention the embarrassments of "cold fusion" and "bubble fusion".

All of the subjects provide the author a chance to look at the processes by which "big science" is done, since Tokamaks and laser-fusion devices are huge projects, requiring huge budgets and huge, often international teams of scientists to bring online. "Cold fusion" and "bubble fusion" provide the opportunity for the author to discuss his promised "science of wishful thinking", and look at how the everyday process of science in investigating extraordinary claims can look to some like a big-science conspiracy.

The cold-fusion movement also drew strength from the press. Reporters seem genetically predisposed to take the side of the underdog, and the cold-fusion-versus-big-science story certainly had one. Some journalists were true believers, and others just were offended by mainstream science's treatment of the cold-fusion researchers. Their gripes came out as a slow and steady drumbeat. "These folks need a fair hearing," said ABC News science correspondent Michael Guillen in 1994. In 1998, Wired's Charles Platt suggested that ignoring new cold-fusion research might be "a colossal conspiracy of denial." The Wall Street Journal returned to its cold-fusion roots in 2003 with a column by the esteemed science journalist Sharon Begley: "Cold fusion today is a prime example of pathological science, but not because its adherents are delusional.... The real pathology," she wrote, "is the breakdown of the normal channels of scientific communication, with no scientists outside the tight-knit cold-fusion tribe bother to scrutinize its claims."

Mainstream physicists saw it differently, of course, Despite the fact that Pons and Fleischmann were claiming something extraordinary—ridiculous, even—the scientific community had scrutinized their claims. They found the Utah group's work sloppy at best, and systematically demolished the chemists' claims. Cold-fusion advocates had spent millions of dollars researching the phenomenon and still did not have a device that could reliably heat a cup of water for tea. The burden of proof, as always in science, is on the people who claim extraordinary things. It is their responsibility to perform an experiment so good that it forces the scientific community to abandon its prior beliefs.

This may be the scientific attitude, but it comes across as terribly arrogant, and that served to increase the power of the cold-fusion lobby. By 2004, the pressure had grown to the point that the Department of Energy felt it necessary to review whether cold fusion merited renewed funding. (The term cold fusion had been dropped in favor of the less-pejorative low-energy nuclear reactions.) The conclusions were much the same as they had been a decade and a half earlier. Yet the mere existence of the review was an indication of the power of the cold-fusion lobby. And the more that people tried to stomp on cold-fusion enthusiasts, the stronger the movement became. [pp. 154—155]

When all was said and done, only a few "hot" fusion approaches remained viable, and even those were starting to face a sort of fusion fatigue in funding for systems that have, for decades, been just "20 years away from power plants providing unlimited energy".

Bubble fusion, like cold fusion, imploded under charges of fraud and scientific misconduct. Though both methods still have their supporters, both have now been swept to the fringes of science. Without a spectacular reversal of fortune, that is where they will remain.

Hot fusion now enjoys a monopoly. Mainstream scientists who hope for fusion energy almost unanimously pin their hopes upon inertial confinement fusion or magnetic fusion. Tabletop fusion and muon-catalyzed fusion are not going to lead to energy production. Bubble fusion and cold fusion were delusions. There are no other options.

Despite that distinction, since the 1990s fusion scientists have had to fight, with increasing desperation, to keep hot-fusion research alive. Now, two multibillion-dollar projects, one in California and one in France, will determine the future of fusion. If the projects succeed, they will allow nations around the world to free themselves from dependence on oil. But it they, fail, it is possible that no amount of money will be sufficient to realize mankind's ambition to bottle the sun. [pp. 202—202]

My notes tell me that I had some quibbles with the way the author explained the nuclear science behind fusion in his earliest chapter, but it was mostly in the nature of word choices that were not always judicious and other word choices that I thought a bit too casual to convey precise meaning. But they were minor and my disagreements vanished after the first chapter, so overall I had a good impression of the author's scienticity and hermeneutics. And, once he was well into personalities, big science, and political intrigue, he kept the story moving along with a good pace and appropriate detail while still managing to keep the science in view.

During the events recounted in the later chapter on "bubble fusion" he was working as a journalist for Science magazine and was caught up in the middle of the controversy over the experiments and their reports and their meaning. He treated his involvement as part of the story and it made for some exciting reading, and not at the expense of keeping the scienticity high, either.

-- Notes by JNS

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