Science reporter Seife (Journalism/NYU; Decoding the Universe, 2007, etc.) clearly explains the power behind both the sun and the hydrogen bomb, hyped as a possible source of cheap energy despite 60 years of research that has produced little except headlines.
The author begins with a history of nuclear fission and fusion, including a surprisingly comprehensible account of how they work. His lucid prose enables nonscientists to easily understand the operation of a hydrogen bomb or the means by which researchers hope to harness fusion to generate electricity. Fission occurs when large molecules (uranium, plutonium) split into smaller ones. In fusion, the opposite occurs: The smallest molecules (deuterium and tritium, forms of hydrogen) slam together to form larger ones, mostly helium. This generates far more energy than fission but happens only at a temperature of millions of degrees that would vaporize any container. As a result, researchers suspend hydrogen in mid-air using magnetic fields or lasers, then apply enormous energy to heat it. By the 1950s, fusion was occurring for a fraction of a second, but sustaining it has proved difficult. Larger and increasingly expensive devices have produced only modest improvements, and the world’s hopes now lie in a titanic, internationally financed project based in France that will cost more than $10 billion and begin operation after 2016. Seife does not ignore the media circus that exploded in 1989 when several reputable researchers announced they had produced fusion in a laboratory at room temperature. When others couldn’t reproduce their findings and it turned out they had fudged some data, most scientists grew skeptical, but there remains an enthusiastic movement, including a few scientists, convinced that the greedy “hot-fusion establishment” is suppressing a world-shaking discovery.
A relentlessly entertaining tale of scientists pursuing a dazzling dream that, in the author’s educated opinion, may never come true.