Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking

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Overview

"When weapons builders detonated the first hydrogen bomb in 1952, they tapped into the biggest source of energy in our solar system - the phenomenon that makes the sun shine. Nuclear fusion seems a virtually unlimited source of power, but it has been at the center of a tragic and comic pursuit that has left scores of scientists battered and disgraced. There's something uniquely alluring about the crusade for fusion energy - a pull so strong that it has beguiled an entire community of scientists for half a century. Like the eternal quest to build ...
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Overview

"When weapons builders detonated the first hydrogen bomb in 1952, they tapped into the biggest source of energy in our solar system - the phenomenon that makes the sun shine. Nuclear fusion seems a virtually unlimited source of power, but it has been at the center of a tragic and comic pursuit that has left scores of scientists battered and disgraced. There's something uniquely alluring about the crusade for fusion energy - a pull so strong that it has beguiled an entire community of scientists for half a century. Like the eternal quest to build a perpetual motion machine, the dream of harnessing the energy of a miniature star is irresistible. Not only would a fusion energy device give the world endless electrical power, it would give power to its inventors - financial power, the power of fame, even military might." "Scientists, even amateurs, and governments have spent almost unfathomable wealth trying to fulfill the dream, attempting to bottle the sun with lasers, magnets, sound waves, particle beams, and chunks of metal. Right now the world's richest countries are spending billions of dollars trying to build a giant fusion reactor. yet is history is any guide, the money will not bring the dream of fusion energy within reach. Indeed, the quest for fusion energy has been a failure, generation after generation. Over and over again, desperate scientists have deceived themselves and their peers - and cheated - in hopes of keeping the fusion quest alive and becoming the masters of unlimited power." "Throughout this journey Charles Seife introduces us to the daring geniuses, villains, and victims of fusion science: the brilliant and tortured Andrei Sakharov; the monomaniacal andStrangelovean 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." Fusion is at the heart of some of the biggest scientific scandals of all time, and Charles Seife traces its story from its beginning into the twenty-first century. Even after fusion scientists face defeat after defeat, they continue trying to put the sun in a bottle, hoping against hope that they will succeed where others have failed.
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Editorial Reviews

Ann Finkbeiner
…substantive and lively …Seife writes with effortless clarity, taking readers through the complex physics and engineering. That means the reader can not only understand but, even better, evaluate Seife's message
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

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)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Washington Post
Written with clarity and infectious enthusiasm that are rare in science writing. . . . Zero is really something.
Kirkus Reviews
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 anenthusiastic 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. Agent: Katinka Matson/Brockman, Inc.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594163688
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/30/2008
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Seife is the author of five previous books, including Proofiness and Zero, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction and was a New York Times notable book. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, Wired, New Scientist, Science, Scientific American, and The Economist. He is a professor of journalism at New York University and lives in New York City.

Charles Seife is the author of five previous books, including Proofiness and Zero, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction and was a New York Times notable book. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, Wired, New Scientist, Science, Scientific American, and The Economist. He is a professor of journalism at New York University and lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Ch. 1 The Sword of Michael 3

Ch. 2 The Valley of Iron 34

Ch. 3 Project Plowshare and the Sunshine Units 57

Ch. 4 Kinks, Instabilities, and Baloney Bombs 74

Ch. 5 Heat and Light 102

Ch. 6 The Cold Shoulder 127

Ch. 7 Secrets 158

Ch. 8 Bubble Trouble 170

Ch. 9 Nothing Like the Sun 201

Ch. 10 The Science of Wishful Thinking 220

Appendix Tabletop Fusion 229

Acknowledgments 237

Notes 239

Bibliography 253

Index 239

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Customer Reviews

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