Sun In a Bottle by Charles Seife


Sun in a Bottle cover image

Sun in a Bottle cover image

When I was young, I enjoyed reading articles about atomic fusion power and the world of tomorrow in National Geographic, Popular Science, and other gee-whiz magazines popular with middle school geeks.  This was before Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, when nuclear power was still sort of cool, the wave of the future.

In these techno-topian visions, nuclear fusion would one day give the world unlimited power for pennies per kilowatt.  Scientists would harness the power of the sun here on Earth, giving us practically free energy.  We’d have flying cars, with mini-nuclear power plants, and space travel for Everyman was just around the corner.

Fusion power always seemed so promising.  The mythical attraction of fusion was closely tied to our American ideals and ambitions.  Capturing the power of the sun surely was within reach of the most powerful, wealthiest, God-loving country on Earth.  The manifest destiny of the nuclear age was fusion, our divinely inspired right to free power, untouched, and untouchable, by foreign  hands.

But  decades later and with billions of public monies spent,  nuclear fusion remains perpetually on the drawing board.  In their optimism, the true believers who convinced  Congress and the public to pour money into the fusion quest underestimated the scope and difficulty of  harnessing fusion for peaceful  means.  Charles Seife’s Sun In a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking. (isbn: 0670020338)  follows the story of the quest for fusion power, from the bombing of Hiroshima, to the 1989 cold fusion debacle.

Will the city of the future be fusion powered? Probably not.

Will the city of the future be fusion powered? Probably not. Image from the Innnovative Transportation Technologies site.

Seife explains the theory behind fusion in a way that laypeople can understand.  There are no physics equations in this book, but Seife covers enough theory to explain the key point that has kept the fusion quest alive:  the theory is plausible, and if the technology can catch up with the theory, we could have a fountain of unlimited energy.

Seife also introduces the various scientists who have been cheerleaders for fusion over the years, and how they convinced Congress, the American people, and eventually world leaders to pursue fusion, thus far in vain.   Chief among them is Edward Teller, the virulently anti-communist nuclear scientist who built the hydrogen bomb, exploited the politics of the McCarthy era and the Cold War to rally support for fusion bombs, and fusion power.

Teller’s ideas for peaceful uses of atomic energy are frightening from today’s perspective, yet  his opinions held sway with many in Congress, who kept his Project Plowshare alive from 1961 until 1977.  Plowshares had a total estimated cost of $770 million, and pursued radical uses for fusion.  Teller wasn’t looking for a safe fusion reactor.  Instead, Teller planned to use fusion bombs for novel mining and excavation projects,  including Project Chariot, an unfulfilled plan to build a harbor in Anchorage, Alaska.

Seife also looks at the more recent efforts by Pons and Fleischman  to harness tabletop chemical fusion, or cold fusion.  The cold fusion story grabbed headlines as an eager public, unfamiliar with physics, learned of this magical new power source.   But the cold fusion miracle was quickly debunked, leaving scientific careers  in shambles and reputations destroyed.   The story lives on, though, fueled by longstanding mistrust of science and government, with conspiracy theories swirling of a cold fusion cover-up.  As late as 2004, a governmental panel was convened to further investigate Pons and Fleischman’s claims.

The cold fusion debacle demonstrates the true nature of the fusion quest. This isn’t science just science; it is partly alchemy, a mythical quest to create something from nothing.  It is interesting to note that a quick search on Google for fusion power reveals many articles and stories that coincidentally use terms like “Holy Grail” and “alchemy.”   The theory behind fusion seems so plausible that we the people are willing to buy into the idea, to the tune of billions of dollars.

As his title suggests, Seife concludes that fusion is the science of wishful thinking.   An elite priesthood of scientists have taken advantage of the public’s fears (of communism, and, more recently, energy  tied to unstable Middle Eastern powers) and mis-education to fund a pipe dream, when  more down to earth power alternatives (solar, wind) starve for funding.

As we look today to the Obama administration and Congress to develop an energy policy, it is worth considering the lessons learned from  the fusion story.  Today, fusion has lost its place as the fuel of the future, but a bevy of corn state congressmen and scientists have beat a steady drumbeat for ethanol as the Next Big Thing, the fuel of tomorrow.   But the pros and cons of mass produced ethanol haven’t fully been considered.  Likewise, the old energy conglomerates are repainting themselves green, pushing their own ideas for an energy panacea:  more drilling, synthetic gas from coal, etc.  Is the wool being pulled over our eyes again?  Seife’s thought provoking book provides ample evidence for the need for close scrutiny of energy policy.

Addendum: Other Views

Here are some other reviews of this book on WordPress.com.  I’ve limited my list of other views and opinions to WordPress.com, just to save time:

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About Chris van Hasselt

I eat, sleep, play guitar...but wait, there's more!
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