Fusion, HO!

(Because Dragonball Z references aren’t the least bit dated.)

So Lockheed Martin is quite enthusiastic about their ideas for nuclear fusion research, and with good reason. If they really have the breakthrough they describe, nuclear fusion could be just a decade away. Finally, clean (certainly no less clean than coal or oil or fission), renewable energy that can be pulled from some of the most abundant materials on the planet. And once the first step is done, it’s only a matter of time before aneutronic fusion (fusion that doesn’t produce as much irradiating neutrons) is nigh-commonplace.

But I wouldn’t be writing about it on a critical blog if I didn’t have a caveat to discuss, and it’s this:

There hasn’t been a “breakthrough” until we have a working prototype.

I’m not saying this hourglass-shaped superconducting-magnet-formed fusion bottle design doesn’t have merit. It may very well work exactly as described and herald in a new age of clean, plentiful energy that could revolutionize our world in innumerable ways. I’m always a little skeptical of any new fusion research simply because it’s usually the winning ticket.

But I’m not talking about the science here, I’m talking about science reporting. This is nothing new; you can almost always trust the media to get it wrong about the important details.

What this boils down to is that Lockheed Martin has a stack of research and other work that amounts to saying, “We have a really good idea that we really think will work and now we’re looking for people to help us to see if it will and, if so, to make it happen.” This is a standard part of the innovative process and does, I would say, represent a significant milestone. These are some of the smartest scientists and engineers in the world, and they wouldn’t be going public with this if they didn’t think it was worth pursuing.

But science reporting sensationalizes for the sake of selling papers–or whatever the equivalent is these days; views? Remember those scientists a couple of years ago who published results saying they had instrumentation that showed superluminal neutrinos? They weren’t making nearly the confident statements the LockMart people are making–in fact, quite the opposite; they wanted help finding what went wrong–and at least one person ended up resigning as a result of the media fervor (I skimmed that article quickly, and even then it was easy to see the understanding of the scientific method stated explicitly in his words).

My point is this: if you are reading or writing scientific journalism, you have to understand something about the scientific method, which is that it will eat you to gain your power. By which I mean: if you use science to show that current scientific understanding is incorrect to the standards of the scientific community (and they are pretty strict standards), science will change its mind. This is relevant to the discussion at hand because you cannot go around making definitive statements about much of anything in science–words like “prove” and “impossible” are real no-nos–so neither should journalism succumb to sensationalist headlines that might serve to dissuade the less scientifically cognizant from supporting a worthwhile endeavour such as fusion research or particle accelerators.

So be very, very careful. The future depends on it.

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