Screen-capture from YouTube: Google Tech TalksI am frequently guilty of ranting, panic, and gross hyperbole on this blog. I get carried away with some ideas, especially political ones, and make a bigger noise than is in any way warranted. I’m not sorry: This is my blog and I’ll rant if I want to, because it’s fun.

In my opinion, this post is not hyperbole and not a rant:

In my considered opinion, I honestly believe that I have just watched the dawn of a new age.

WARNING: This video is blurry footage of a wizened old physicist with lots of charts and diagrams and high-energy-physics jargon. If you’re not into the physics (which are seriously funky if you are into that kind of thing) then the ramifications of this system are beautifully summed up in the ten minutes from 59:30 to 1:10:00, and the practical considerations and somewhat embarrassing politics of the matter are well discussed in the questions after 1:10:00.

For those disinclined or unable to do the streaming-video thing for ten minutes, I would sum it up thus:

Dr Robert Bussard’s research group have been looking at a lateral approach to the magnetically confined fusion problem for the past eleven years. They have been doing this in a DARPA-funded laborotory in relative secrecy because their approach is practical, feasible and relatively cheap, making it anathema to the dual vested interests of conventional Tokamak-based fusion research and fossil-fuel economics.

Their system uses a spherical magnetic containment field to produce a clean (radiation free) fusion reaction, without molten lithium or multi-billion dollar building-sized toroids.

The important point of the video is that they’ve already done it. They made it work in a machine the size of a domestic oven, on a shoestring budget, with a team of five people.

Some weeks ago, when I started reading Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla I was struck by the attitude of the great minds of the time, one which saw physical science as malleable and controllable, a field in which one brilliant idea in one ordinary human mind in one brief human lifetime could reshape the world.
This attitude, I recall saying to PFH at the time, is something which seems to be missing in modern science: That kind of glory is seen as being firmly beyond the reach of individuals, or even individual research groups. Everything is to be refined and tested in infinitesimal steps, and there will never be another great revolution like Tesla’s AC power system, or so our scientific community is expected to believe.

Seeing this talk has convinced me that I was wrong, or at least partly wrong. A lot of Dr. Bussard’s concluding comments say exactly the same thing: he’s been closeted with his research group behind closed doors for eleven years, and now it’s very rare to find anyone experienced in this kind of science.

I was wrong though, because Bussard and his team exist. As he says during the questions, somewhere, somehow, the concluding research is being done. A viable fusion power source is being perfected, and I will probably live to see it come to fruition.

It’s hard to be calm in the face of such things.

6 thoughts on “…CHANGE THE WORLD…

  1. Allow me to babble while the video downloads…
    I disagree with the first part of your write-up, and not merely for the sake of being contrary. 😉
    See, I think that science will always have “holy grails”, and the more steps we take, the more our eyes will open to new possibilities.
    Sure, as you said, there are many small steps and inventions, which, while useful, are not colossal leaps. But, sometimes, we get it right and make a revolutionary/evolutionary step. Often, it’s by the focused work of a brilliant individual or small team.
    Tesla stands-out as a great example.
    Burt Rutan, IMHO, is a modern example (designer/builder of aeroplanes that take-off and land normally but hit the edge of space…that was science-fiction until a few years ago and when you extrapolate from there, the next generation or two put the Space Shuttle to shame).

    I think the problem you’ve identified is a question of scale. The low-hanging fruit have mostly been picked and are growing-back at only a very slowly-increasing rate. Working a stint at VPAC about a year ago taught me that. In research/academia, the class of problem that’s small enough for a lone researcher of PhD student to do is stagnating. Bigger problems exist but have, until recently, been out of reach. Group-work, collaborative efforts and especially the emerging discipline of of massive parallelism are the way to go. Networking and parallelism allow us to scale our efforts more effectively, which is what’s finally letting us tackle some seriously big problems (eg: modeling internal organs down to a sub-cellular level to investigate drug-functions).

    As for the question of going nuclear, I think fission is a dangerous dead-end. Fusion, though…bring it on. :->

  2. @Damien re Burt Rutan, I don’t think doing something in 2004 that NASA was doing in 1963 counts as particularly innovative, nor does it have much similarity to the Space Shuttle. You might better compare it to the X-15, which had a similar mission profile for a couple of its flights.

    The difference between orbital and sub-orbital flight is quite significant to begin with, and the formula it feeds into (the “rocket equation”) is exponential. As a rule of thumb, sub-orbital flight to 100km is somewhat borderline, but still easily doable. Orbital flight is well beyond that.

    The Space Shuttle does have its problems, some of them serious. However, comparing it against SpaceShipOne is almost entirely invalid.

  3. The modes of launch for the X-15 and space ship 1 (or 2) are quite different. One uses an integrated carrier-plane, while the other was slung under the wing of a B-52.
    That aside, I was more talking about the ability of SS1 to safely perform atmospheric re-entry at relatively slow speeds and land on a normal runway (compared with the shuttle).
    It’s worth bearing in mind that Rutan’s enterprise is bootstrapped from a kit-plane manufacturing outfit (from the 70s, IIRC)…while the shuttle comes with the history and backing of NASA. If it were easy, more people would be doing it.
    It’s also worth looking at Scaled Composites’ one fatality (from memory, an industrial accident on the ground relating to mishandling rocket fuel, not vehicle failure), compared with the loss of pilots and crew of several Space Shuttles and X-15.
    I’ve heard you and others bagging SS1 previously for not reaching orbital altitude but I don’t think that makes the achievements of the craft invalid, nor of the designer, nor of his numerous other record-setting planes (such as the Proteus, Voyager and GlobalFlyer).
    Put like that, I’m having a difficult time thinking of any one person who’s had a greater effect on the design of people-moving vehicles since the 70s (sure, much has gone on with cars and other transport, but they’ve practically always been by design-firms or faceless corporations, not individuals). And, how he’s getting space-tourism happening as a viable commercial venture with an offshoot of a global airline (let me guess, you’ll churlishly say: “But that’s not really space since they don’t go orbital”? :-P).
    Rutan stands as an example of one of those rare innovators in the mould that Thorne describes as: “One brilliant idea in one ordinary human mind in one brief human lifetime could reshape the world”.

  4. Churlish? Perhaps I am. I have the handicap of actually having done some back-of-the-envelope calculations.

    As for landing, it’s not difficult to do a re-entry at slow speed if you never build up high speed to begin with.

    The main reason nobody is doing it is that there’s nothing to see or do there, and as a fairy-ground ride it’s a bit expensive.

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