Sun in a Bottle : The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking
The author of Zero looks at the messy history of the struggle to harness fusion energy .
When weapons builders detonated the first hydrogen bomb in 1952, they tapped into the vastest source of energy in our solar system--the very same phenomenon that makes the sun shine. Nuclear fusion was a virtually unlimited source of power that became the center of a tragic and comic quest that has left scores of scientists battered and disgraced. For the past half-century, governments and research teams have tried to bottle the sun with lasers, magnets, sound waves, particle beams, and chunks of metal, have struggled to harness the power of fusion. (The latest venture, a giant, multi-billion-dollar, international fusion project called ITER, is just now getting underway.) Again and again, they have failed, disgracing generations of scientists. Throughout this fascinating journey Charles Seife introduces us to the daring geniuses, villains, and victims of fusion science: the brilliant and tortured Andrei Sakharov; the monomaniacal and Strangelovean Edward Teller; Ronald Richter, the secretive physicist whose lies embarrassed an entire country; and Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, the two chemists behind the greatest scientific fiasco of the past hundred years. Sun in a Bottle is the first major book to trace the story of fusion from its beginnings into the 21st century, of how scientists have gotten burned by trying to harness the power of the sun.
Fifty years ago scientists and futurists glowingly predicted a future in which cars would run on little fusion cells and the world would extract deuterium from the oceans for an inexhaustible supply of energy. Like all too many shining visions, fusion turned out to be a mirage. Award-winning science journalist Seife (Zero) takes a long, hard look at nuclear fusion and the failure of one scheme after another to turn it into a sustainable energy source. Many readers will remember the 1989 "cold fusion" debacle, but Seife explains why tabletop fusion isn't all that difficult to achieve. The problem, as with all fusion devices except the hydrogen bomb, is to produce more energy than the fusion process consumes. The two most promising approaches today use plasma and lasers, but again, Seife reports, scientists have been repeatedly frustrated. The United States and several other industrial nations recently agreed optimistically to sink billions of dollars into a 30-year fusion power project. Seife's approachable book should interest everyone concerned about finding alternative energy sources. (Nov. 3)
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October 29, 2008
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