Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking - Charles Seife (2008)

INTRODUCTION

Circe warned me to shun the island of the blessed sun-god, for it was here, she said, that our worst danger would lie.

—THE ODYSSEY, TRANSLATED BY SAMUEL BUTLER

The dream is as ancient as humanity: unlimited power. It has driven generation after generation of scientists to the brink of insanity.

In 1905, after centuries of attempts to build perpetual motion machines, scientists discovered an essentially limitless source of energy. With his famous equation, E = mc2, Albert Einstein discovered that a minuscule chunk of mass could, theoretically, be converted into an enormous amount of energy. Indeed, E = mc 2 is the equation that describes why the sun shines; at its core, the sun is constantly converting matter to energy in a reaction known as fusion. If scientists could do the same thing on Earth—if they could convert matter into energy with a controlled fusion reaction—scientists could satisfy humanity’s energy needs until the end of time.

For the past half century, legions of physicists have been trying desperately to create a tiny sun in a bottle, trying to bring the stellar power of fusion to Earth. The quest for fusion is the story of scientists weaving an increasingly tangled web of secret, crazy, and brilliant schemes to harness the power of the sun. They are caught up in a complex tale that includes classified government experiments, billion-dollar scientific projects, and byzantine conspiracy theories. The quest for fusion is a tale of genius physicists who have changed the world forever—for better and for worse—and of secret-spilling whistleblowers, jealous researchers, brilliant tinkerers, and backstabbing politicians.

The stakes are enormous—and they are getting higher by the day. The world’s supply of oil is no longer assured to meet humanity’s energy needs; worse yet, the threat of global warming is forcing governments to find sources of power other than fossil fuels. In the long term, fusion is the only option. Humanity will suffer if researchers don’t solve its problems.

Scientists have broken under the pressure. Others have been forced to make a heartwrenching decision to give up their dreams and disavow their work or to be driven from the fold of mainstream science. Over and over again, the dream of fusion energy has driven scientists to lie, to break their promises, and to deceive their peers. Fusion can bring even the best physicists to the brink of the abyss. Not all of them return.