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January 06, 2009

Sun in a Bottle

I'm just finishing up Sun in a Bottle by Charles Seife. He covers the pursuit of fusion power from the early awareness of radioactivity, through the construction of fission bombs, onward to fusion research (magnetic confinement, inertial -- laser -- confinement) and fringe science, such as cold fusion, sonoluminescence and electrostatic confinement (fusors).

[Update One: The above paragraph sounds pretty pejorative, and it is. Seife takes pains to describe how easy it is to mistake the signs of fusion, and how easy it is to become emotionally invested in the results of these smaller experiments. But he is pretty clear that the evidence is not there. I'm not going to become a champion for either side. I just read a book, people.]

It's a fascinating book, and coincidentally, I've been sitting on a video that was made a couple of years ago at Google featuring Robert Bussard. The video is called Should Google Go Nuclear? Clean, cheap, nuclear power (no, really). During the talk, Bussard presents his work on electrostatic confinement, and it's a wonderful talk, even if I don't really follow the physics that well. Sadly, Charles Seife mentions this in his book, and puts it in the same category as cold fusion and bubble fusion. I hope he's wrong. Bussard was a fascinating scientist and it would be great if he figured out a path to fusion power before he died.

[Update Two: I'm going to quote the entire paragraph on Bussard, so that M. Simon (another commentor) can judge the tone for himself:

On November 9, 2006, just days before the Olson story broke, the fusion physicist Robert Bussard gave a talk at Google about his research with a modified fusor. He had been working for the navy, but after a number of years he had run out of money for the program. The scientist told his audience that if he could only get his hands on $200 million, he would be able to produce a working power plant within four to five years. Bussard was deceiving himself if mainstream scientific thought is any guide. The equations of plasma physics strongly imply that fusorlike devices are very unlikely to produce more energy than they consume. Nature's inexorable energy-draining powers are too hard to overcome.

Posted by dpwakefield at January 6, 2009 09:09 PM


You might find the latest news on IEC/Bussard of interest:

Rick Nebel Updates The Latest News

This is neither cold fusion or bubble fusion. It is standard beam-beam fusion. The question is not does it make fusion - it does. The question is: can the losses be reduced enough to make net power. The answer so far: we don't know. Maybe it can - more research required.

Posted by: M. Simon at January 7, 2009 12:54 AM

M. Simon (Simon?),

Charles Seife mentions Bussard's research in the appendix, on tabletop fusion and Farnsworth's fusors. So the intention was not to lump it in with cold fusion, but to quote Seife's doubts about it's chances. I'll add text to that effect when I'm home and can quote the book.

I read a few cherry-picked quotes from Dr. Nebel on the Polywell entry on Wikipedia, which to it's credit is up to date as of December 2008.

I'm not a physicist or even a physics hobbyist, so reading a book like Seife's is usually the extent to which I follow the field. I figure if Bussard's design proves out, I will hear about it when that happens ;^)

Anyway, thanks for the link to Talk Polywell. Are you a fan or are you involved in the research?

Posted by: Don Wakefield at January 7, 2009 08:22 AM

Seife's comments about cold fusion are completely incorrect. Thousands of papers have been published on this subject that contradict his claims. He apparently did not bother to read any peer-reviewed scientific papers on this subject.

For information on cold fusion, see:


Posted by: Jed Rothwell at January 7, 2009 11:18 AM

Jed, thanks for the information.

Posted by: Don Wakefield at January 7, 2009 02:14 PM

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