Sunday, January 23, 2011

BC2011: Sun in a Bottle

I've been buying more books about science lately because they challenge me (I have a degree in computer science, but it's a B.A.). Sun in a Bottle by Charles Seife is a history of fusion. It's a frustrating tale without a happy ending. Although scientists have predicted that fusion power plants are only 20-30 years away, they've been saying that for 50 years. Fusion experiments have been successful, but the problem is that they take more energy to execute than they create (achieving a net gain is the goal).

Seife starts with the Manhattan Project, which created a fission bomb, and continues into hydrogen bomb development and Project Plowshare, a controversial plan to use fission and/or fusion bombs for civil engineering. He clearly explains how fusion works and how scientists are attempting to harness it. He also details the scandalous elements of fusion's history from Juan Peron's physicist Ronald Richter to "cold fusion" to "bubble fusion." In reference to these events, the book is in part subtitled "the Science of Wishful Thinking."

I read several books about nuclear energy last year, so fusion seemed like the next logical step. Seife deserves credit for writing about a complex subject in a way that laypeople can easily understand. I would recommend Sun in a Bottle to anyone curious about fusion as well as anyone with a deep interest in future energy technologies. It would take an awful lot of windmills and solar panels to match the output of a single successful fusion plant. Despite all the setbacks, I believe fusion power is still our greatest hope for the future.


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