FUSION by Robin Herman


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The story of a breakthrough that hasn't broken through--yet. That New York Times staffer Herman is able to weave an absorbing account of 40 years of frustration is a tribute to her skills as a reporter able to capture the science and politics of the struggle. It all began with a bit of sensationalism on the part of Argentinian dictator Juan Peron: the (false) announcement in 1951 that fusion had been achieved; the dream of taking ordinary water with its abundant hydrogen atoms and fusing them (as happens in the sun) had supposedly happened in the laboratory, producing the extra energy that could power generators. No more fossil fuels. A minimum of radioactive wastes. The Argentinian false claim would not be the last, as it turned out, but it did serve to spark worldwide interest in what became the new field of plasma physics: the behavior of ionized gases at Ultra-high temperatures. Research was top-secret at first, resulting in years of lost time when physicists learned they had all been following parallel courses with parallel defeats. Now, due to the development of the Russian ""tokamak"" device, it is possible to reach tens of millions of degrees, for a moment, but nothing practical has emerged. Hope springs eternal, nevertheless, which is why the European community is excited the by huge J(oint) E(uropean) T(orus) and why the world paid attention to the cold-fusion claims of Pons and Fleischmann--neatly described and dispatched by Herman. She sums up current thinking that fusion research may have suffered from caution: too much theory and not enough gung-ho trying. The bigger the model the better, it seems. We shall see.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1990
Publisher: Cambridge Univ. Press