PD Smith

Scientists to recreate sun in hunt for energy

04 May 2008 | Atomic Age, atomic bomb, Curie, fusion, Rutherford, Soddy | Post a comment

Jonathan Leake, the science editor of The Sunday Times, has written a fascinating article on the latest attempts to generate power from nuclear fusion. You can read it in today's Times.

I’m struck by a feeling of déjà vu as I read through the descriptions of the new technology on the website of America’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore laboratory in California. They talk about the “Dawn of a New Era” and that “nuclear fusion offers the potential for virtually unlimited safe and environmentally benign energy”.

Such language and the scientific dream of unlimited energy goes back to at least the start of the last century and the birth of the science of radioactivity. The discoveries of the Curies and Rutherford were seized upon by the press as evidence of unlimited energy locked in the dark heart of matter.

Rutherford’s co-worker, British chemist Frederick Soddy, predicted that atomic science was going to transform the world into what he memorably called "one smiling Garden of Eden" - an atomic paradise on earth. HG Wells was inspired by Soddy to write his influential 1914 novel The World Set Free in which he imagines an atomic utopia, but also – the flipside of the atomic coin – a global nuclear war. Indeed he even coined the phrase, “atomic bomb” in this novel.

The idea of unlimited atomic energy has inspired fiction writers ever since. It was the dream of American pulp sf in the 1940s. Clifford D. Simak’s ‘Lobby’ (1944) contains this wonderful description of an atomic scientist, called Butler. He is a classic inventor-scientist motivated by idealistic dreams of unlimited energy:

“You’ve seen his kind. Has one ruling passion. The only thing that counts with him is atomic power. Not atomic power as a theory or as something to play around with, but power that will turn wheels – cheap. Power that will free the world, that will help develop the world. Power so cheap and plentiful and safe to handle that no man is so poor he can’t afford to use it.”

But as Wells was quick to see as early as 1914, an unlimited energy source also means a potential superweapon: the atomic bomb. When the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory begins its experiment to create a miniature star on earth we should try not to get blinded by their utopian rhetoric. After all this is also the technology that lies at the heart of the H-bomb.

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