- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

SUN IN A BOTTLE: THE STRANGE HISTORY OF FUSION AND THE SCIENCE OF WISHFUL THINKING

By Charles Seife

Viking, $25.95, 294 pages

The dream of deriving cheap nuclear power is the ultimate leprechaun’s pot of gold at the end of the scientific rainbow. Hundreds of billions of dollars in research have been poured into it for close to 60 years. It has never delivered and, if Charles Seife is to be believed in this sober, clear account, it never will.

In an era of enormous energy instability, global economic contraction and looming crisis, “Sun in a Bottle” should be essential reading for every policymaker and legislator in Washington. Its central message is delivered simply and succinctly: “It is an unfortunate fact of nature: Unless you are creating fusion in a hot dense plasma, you are extraordinarily unlikely to produce excess energy. Too many phenomena conspire against you.”

This book, like Mr. Seife's previous ones, is a model of what scientific history should be. It does not fudge or oversimplify facts. It does not talk down to its readers. What it does do is explain crucial scientific principles and complex debates over research in a scintillating, clear way that anyone can understand.

Mr. Seife is superb at bringing a remarkably colorful and variegated cast of characters to life. Edward Teller, the Hungarian-born physicist who was the visionary driving force behind the U.S. fusion-weapon program - in other words, making thermonuclear weapons, also known as hydrogen bombs - is defined by a pithy quote from the great physicist Enrico Fermi: “In my acquaintance, you are the only monomaniac with several manias.”

Mr. Teller was wrong on the detailed science of virtually everything he ever proposed, from his first concepts of fusion weapons in 1942 to his championing of orbiting “battle stars” shooting down intercontinental ballistic missiles with lasers that so inspired President Reagan 40 years later. Nevertheless, his driving will transformed the world. Mr. Teller never doubted fusion weapons could and should be made. So they were. Then he and his successors produced one wild and futile scheme after another to try to extract benign, cheap energy from them.

As Mr. Seife documents, fusion enthusiasts in the 1950s proliferated faster than rats carrying bubonic plague. They wanted to excavate unnecessary canals using H-bombs. They even suggested pulverizing the moon. One young scientist enthusiastic for these wild dreams, Harold Brown, became President Carter's secretary of defense 20 years later .

Repeatedly, as Mr. Seife documents, the most reputable scientists in Britain and the United States as well as other nations deceived themselves that they were on the verge of breakthroughs that would make cheap, clean, unlimited energy possible and banish forever the specter of oil cutoffs.

The paradox was established as early as 50 years ago. Governments and scientists wildly pumped untold billions of dollars into fusion energy programs and thereby made themselves far more dependent on cheap oil than they would have been if they had used those funds to try to move their economies away from oil using existing technologies and alternative social models. “Even as scientists seemed to learn more about fusion, the dream of unlimited power seemed to slip further away,” Mr. Seife writes.

For the past 20 years, as Mr. Seife notes, scientists have focused on magnetic fusion and inertial confinement fusion as the most hopeful and realistic roads of research. However, both methods cost the Earth and are extremely unreliable and unstable as well. After all, it is not easy to create, let alone harness, heat and energies comparable to those that power the sun.

Mr. Seife concludes, “After decades of research, the goal of fusion energy had become 10 years more distant.” In the 1950s and 1970s, the most reputed scientists predicted that cheap fusion energy on demand was just 20 years away. Now the prediction event horizon has advanced to 30 years in the future.

Mr. Seife also delivers an entertaining account of the cold-fusion fiasco unleashed by chemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleishman. He cites fusion scientist Leonid Ponomarev as explaining why credulity in the cold-fusion fantasy could advance as far as it did and be taken so seriously before the bubble of false hopes and dreams finally was popped. Fusion scientists “are also human, and need miracles, and hope.”However, that excuse doesn't seem a very strong argument for spending more scores of billions of dollars chasing a science-fiction will-o'-the-wisp.

Martin Sieff is defense industry editor for United Press International. He has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting.


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