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


When one turns to the magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and sees how it was reared; what thousands of disinterested moral lives of men lie buried in its mere foundations; what patience and postponement, what choking down of preference, what submission to the icy laws of outer fact are wrought into its very stones and mortar; how absolutely impersonal it stands in its vast augustness,—then how besotted and contemptible seems every little sentimentalist who comes blowing his voluntary smoke-wreaths, and pretending to decide things from out of his private dream!


We see what we want to see. That is why science was invented.

Science is little more than a method of tearing away notions that are not supported by cold, hard data. It forces us to discard ideas that we cherish. It eliminates some of our hopes, some of our dreams, and some of our wishes. This is why science can be so soul crushing to even its most devoted adherents.

Every scientist, at least on some level, has a vision of the way nature should behave. Every scientist, at least on some level, is wrong. And that means that scientists, sometimes subtly and sometimes unsubtly, occasionally try to wrestle the scientific narrative in the wrong direction. Like the mythmakers of old, they try to craft nature in their image.

The true power of science comes from its ability to withstand the wishful thinking of the humans who craft its stories. Individual scientists err. They deceive themselves—and they can deceive others. They might even lie or cheat in an attempt to win fame or glory or immortality. But the whole point of the scientific method is to try to insulate the scientific story from the whims and frailties of the scientists who write it.

The mechanisms of science are, essentially, protection against wishful thinking. This protection takes many forms, but the strongest come from the scientific community itself. Published scientific research is peer reviewed and vetted by rivals to ensure that its authors have made no obvious mistakes. The scientific community demands that experiments be repeatable, and if any question arises about the validity of an important experiment, scientists will clamor to have a second group verify the result with a different piece of equipment. And if there’s a hint of incompetence or fraud, the community will howl for the blood of the malefactors. It can be brutal, but this is the way science protects itself from the dishonesty, the stupidity, or the human failures of an individual scientist. This is what makes science seem so inhuman. The scientific method has no sympathy for wishful thinking.

This can be hard on even the most brilliant scientists. As they practice their craft, they are forced to renounce some of their beliefs, no matter how deeply held they might be. If they err—as they almost certainly will—they must admit that they have deceived themselves. They have to do it publicly and without regard for their fragile human egos. They must eviscerate themselves on the altar of science. At least, that’s what their peers expect.

For Andrew Lyne, an astronomer at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in England, the day of reckoning came in January 1992. Standing in front of a roomful of physicists and astronomers, Lyne was steeling himself, preparing to make an announcement that could destroy him. “It was the thing that one fears more than anything else in one’s scientific life, and it was happening,” Lyne said. “I certainly at the time thought that it was the end of my career.”

Lyne was a radio astronomer, an expert in detecting and interpreting radio waves spewed out by stars and galaxies. In the early 1990s, his attention was drawn to a collapsed star known as a pulsar. These pulsars shine like cosmic lighthouses, emitting beams of radio waves as they spin. An earthbound observer like Lyne sees these pulsars blinking on and off with a clocklike regularity. But Lyne noticed that one pulsar was not blinking quite so regularly; it seemed to speed up and slow down. It was almost as if the pulsar was being tugged about by an unseen object, an invisible massive body orbiting the pulsar and pulling it out of its regular rhythm. He and his team had spotted what appeared to be a planet circling a foreign star.

Lyne was ecstatic. It would be the first detection of a world outside our solar system, a truly alien planet. It was something that astronomers had been looking for, in vain, for decades. This discovery would inscribe Lyne’s name among the immortals of astronomy. Barely able to contain his excitement, Lyne submitted a paper to Nature.

The manuscript contained at least one significant issue. The planet seemed to orbit the pulsar once every 365 days, the same amount of time it takes the Earth to orbit the sun. It would be a pretty stunning coincidence if true, and to some astronomers it suggested something was wrong with Lyne’s measurements. Perhaps he was failing to take the Earth’s motion around the sun into account. It was a big warning sign, but Lyne was confident about his observations. “We did all sorts of tests on the data and tried to think of all the possible ways we might be making a mistake.” They couldn’t find an error. They were truly convinced: they were seeing an extrasolar planet. The reviewers at Nature were apparently convinced, too. It seemed to be a momentous discovery.

When the Nature paper came out, the astronomical community went wild. Lyne was showered with congratulations. The president of the American Astronomical Society immediately called a special session at the society’s annual meeting to discuss the discovery. Lyne would be the guest of honor. Then disaster struck. “Ten or twelve days before I was due to give that talk, I discovered the error,” Lyne said. It was a subtle one. His team had used the wrong piece of software to correct for the Earth’s motion. With one of the dozens of pulsars they had been observing, they forgot to make a key change in the computer code. This minute error manifested as a tiny glitch in the pulsar’s timing, a glitch that exactly mimicked the tug of an extrasolar planet orbiting the pulsar every 365 days.

The alien planet was a complete fiction. It vanished as soon as Lyne’s team corrected the program. Less than a week before Lyne had to address his fellow astronomers—luminaries who had called a special session—the discovery dissolved into dust.

When Lyne took to the stage, he was petrified. “It was a large audience of extremely eminent astronomers and scientists,” he said. However, he had decided what to do. Instead of telling everyone about the discovery of the extrasolar planet as originally planned, he told the gathered audience, in great detail, how he and his team had deceived themselves by failing to check their software properly. It was humiliating. Yet, at the end of his presentation, the audience broke out into a long, loud round of applause. Lyne was shocked. “Here I was, with the biggest blunder of my life and...” Lyne paused, gathering himself. “But I think that many people have nearly done such things themselves.”

This is the way science is supposed to work. When a scientist discovers that he has erred, that he had deceived himself, he gives the scientific community a full and detailed report about his folly. The scientist abases himself, science rids itself of the erroneous notion, and the march of research continues on. However, reality isn’t always so clean. Sometimes, other experimentalists join a scientist in self-deception; this makes it much harder to correct an error. It is also difficult when ego gets involved, as it often does. Lyne was lucky; he found his error himself. It’s much harder to come clean when other scientists—your rivals—find your errors for you.

There are those who make a different decision. Many scientists, forced to stand on the edge of the abyss, gather their strength and leap. The annals of science are littered with the names of once-celebrated scientists whose wishful thinking forced them to jump into the fringe. If their pet theories become immune to contrary evidence, if their logic resists any criticism, if their peers suspect that they have fudged results, they are expelled from the scientific community. Usually this process takes years. With fusion, it can take just weeks.

Pons and Fleischmann were at the brink days after they went public. Almost immediately, Fleischmann in England and Pons in Utah discovered that their peak was in the wrong place—the gamma rays they thought they were detecting didn’t have the right energy. They had to make a decision: retreat or press on despite the damaging evidence.

Taleyarkhan’s group was nearing the brink even before their paper was published. At Oak Ridge, scientists had replicated the experiment with better neutron detectors and found nothing. It was a devastating blow. They had to make a decision: retreat or press on despite the damaging evidence.

The Taleyarkhan decision, at least at first, was more defensible than Pons and Fleischmann’s. But in the end, they all wound up leaping into the void. Almost as soon as the researchers announced their results, accusations and investigations sent them to the fringe. The scientists of cold fusion and bubble fusion will never rejoin the ranks of the mainstream.

Every scientific field has its scandals and its renegades. There are biologists who dwell on the fringe, just as there are materials scientists, physicists, chemists, and geologists. But there’s something about fusion that is a little different—the power of the dream of unlimited fusion energy that makes generation after generation of scientists deceive themselves.

The wishful thinking about fusion extends far beyond a handful of shunned individuals like Pons and Fleischmann, Taleyarkhan, and Perón’s Ronald Richter. Individuals like these flare brightly and are quickly extinguished. They become the source of dark rumors and conspiracy theories, but they do superficial damage once they are excluded from the scientific community.

The real danger of wishful thinking comes not from these individuals but from the wishful thinking at the very core of the scientific community. This, and not the threat from a handful of renegades, is what makes the dream of fusion energy so dangerous to science.

The community seems to be in thrall to a collective delusion. Since the early 1950s, physicists have convinced themselves that fusion energy is nearly within their grasp. The perennially overoptimistic Edward Teller thought that within a few years, hydrogen bombs would carve canals, propel spacecraft, and generate almost unlimited amounts of energy. Lyman Spitzer thought powerful magnetic fields would create an artificial star within a decade. The ZETA team thought they had achieved fusion in 1958, freeing the planet from its dependence on fossil fuels. Laser fusion scientists thought that Shiva would produce energy, and that Nova would produce energy. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The history of fusion energy remained a series of failures.

Even if scientists finally change their luck, even if NIF breaks even and ITER manages to get a plasma burning for minutes at a time, both machines are still far from becoming working fusion reactors. NIF’s design, particularly its slow lasers that need to cool for hours between shots, suggests that researchers will have to move to an entirely different type of laser system to have any hope of a practical energy source. ITER will never achieve ignition and sustained burn, the hallmark of a successful magnetic fusion reactor.

It is entirely possible that after billions of dollars and decades of research, fusion scientists will take the experimental results from ITER and turn them into a design for a viable fusion reactor. No physical law stands against it, after all. But if history is any guide, a long, long road lies ahead before physicists will be able to tame fusion reactions in a bottle.

Once they succeed, will it mean anything? Though aficionados are quick to tout fusion energy as the clean, unlimited energy source of the future, it is unlikely to be terribly clean or even terribly practical. The radioactive waste it generates is somewhat easier to deal with than the corresponding waste from a fission power plant, but it is a problem nonetheless. Fusion is also expensive. ITER is likely to cost $15 billion or more to build and run, and it won’t ever be a practical reactor. Even with mass production, each fusion power plant will probably cost many billions of dollars. So long as there are other energy sources available, fusion is unlikely to make a huge dent in humanity’s energy needs.

A better candidate, despite its unpopularity, is fission. Compare it to fusion. Both have a waste problem. Fission’s is more severe, but not by much, at least in the near future. Fission plants are expensive, but they are likely to be considerably cheaper than their fusion counterparts. Fission plants are more dangerous than fusion plants (the fission reaction can get out of control, and a fusion reaction almost certainly won’t), and malefactors can process spent fuel rods to get materials for atom bombs. However, new designs (such as pebble-bed reactors) reduce the risks dramatically. Fission plants don’t have an unlimited source of fuel, but they do have enough for a century or two. And while fusion might be the energy source of the future, fission technology is already here.

Fission may not be the answer to humanity’s energy needs; we might well have to turn to fusion in the more distant future. Nevertheless, from a purely practical point of view, fission seems to be a more reasonable solution than fusion, at least in the short term. Other, non-nuclear, possibilities exist as well. For example, if we figure out how to trap and sequester carbon dioxide, we might be able to burn coal and methane without releasing greenhouse gases. Carbon sequestration schemes and advanced fission reactor designs aren’t sexy, cutting-edge science, but they are much more likely than fusion to help the next few generations of humans.

Even so, the fusion community clings to the hope that fusion energy is just thirty years away—and that it will solve all our energy problems. Despite the failures of the past, despite the enormous hurdles ahead, despite the tremendous cost, despite the easier alternatives, scientists still insist that fusion energy is the path forward. It is just another case of wishful thinking.

There’s something uniquely powerful about the promise of fusion energy. It harks back to the ancient quest to build a perpetual motion machine, but this time the source of unlimited energy doesn’t violate the laws of physics. To anyone who could harness the energy of a miniature star, fusion promised power. Not only would it give the world endless electrical power, it would give power to its inventors. To some scientists, this meant financial power. Still others sought the power of fame. Some saw military and political power. The rewards are so great that they can blind the scientists on the quest.

This is not to say that fusion science is worthless. Far from it. Plasma physicists have figured out the inner workings of distant stars—how they live and die. It is no coincidence that some of the world’s leading experts in stellar dynamics and supernova explosions are at Los Alamos, Livermore, and Princeton. Furthermore, fusion physicists are exploring new territory—they are looking at hotter, denser matter than anyone has yet examined—and scientists learn interesting things whenever they expand the boundaries of a field. Apparently, a pinch machine at Sandia Natural Laboratories has recently created a plasma hotter than a billion degrees. If true, it is a tremendous achievement that opens a new regime—much hotter even than the center of a star—to experimenters. That is an accomplishment in itself, but whenever physicists talk to the public about Sandia’s Z machine, fusion energy madness seems to grip them. A 2007 Sandia press release promised that “fired repeatedly, the machine could well be the fusion machine that could form the basis of an electrical generating plant only two decades away.”

It seems the wishful thinking is as strong as ever.

The promise of a fusion reactor a few decades away has been a cliché for a half century. Every time it is repeated, it just illuminates how generation after generation of scientists, drunk with the promise of personal glory and unlimited energy, keep forgetting the hard lessons learned by their predecessors. The quest to put a star in the bottle is intoxicating. Fusion might be the energy source of the future. If fusion scientists are unable to rid themselves of their intemperate self-deception, it always will be.