Open Up Your Eyelids if You’re Blind to the Science

This Friday I went to a talk by the creator of General Fusion, a Canadian company that is researching an approach to fusion (the reaction inside the sun for a source of energy) called magnetized target fusion. If I’ve lost you already, it’s a very unconventional approach, but if you listen to the GF creator, it’s much more viable than the other methods, and will happen next year.

After all, as he accurately points out, Laser Fusion requires billions of dollars for a gigantic laser, and after working on it for over fifty years, scientists are only hoping to produce energy gain next year. He’s already produced neutrons!

This is the style of presentation that has resulted in General Fusion being awarded about $60 million CAD in funding from Venture Capitalists and the government. And what he is saying is accurate; however, those who don’t know the lingo are intentionally misled.

Neutrons are easy to get out of a fusion reaction. When the laser was first invented, scientists shot hydrogen and observed a few neutrons. That’s why fusion became such a hot pursuit, because it seemed “just around the corner”. The major challenge with fusion research is not neutrons–it’s getting enough neutrons to make it viable as a source of energy.

And it turns out, that as you try to get more and more neutrons, there are problems that you wouldn’t imagine. We’re closer than we’ve ever been before, which is very close, but that’s taken a lot of much-needed time and effort. Those 50 years of research weren’t wasted.

So, now let’s compare the two approaches on a level playing field, shall we?

Inertial Confinement (or Laser) Fusion is hoping to demonstrate energy breakeven by the end of 2012. That means as much energy out as laser energy is going in. As quoted by the creator of GF, he has created neutrons at energy conversion of 10^(-10). That’s one hundredth of a millionth of a percent. Pretty awesome, eh? Let’s give this guy more money.

I’ve got to give him credit, though — he knows enough science to state facts that are accurate and demonstrate that he’s knowledgeable in the area. The way he arranges the details, however, is dishonest and misleading in comparing his proposals against other methods.

As another example of his tactics, he pointed out all the problems that other forms of fusion have had to tackle. Then he pointed out some of the benefits of his approach, as though they were related to the problems he had just discussed. Which they weren’t. In fact, the problems for other approaches to fusion are just as present in his scheme as they are in any other. And as a bonus, there are all sorts of technical issues on top of those regular old ones. Yet the way it is presented it is as though by using pistons, dynamite and a liquid metal vortex with a plasma gun, you get around all the complications. No, you don’t–you introduce more and different ones. If you look at the overall complexity of the back-of-the-envelope design compared to laser or magnetic confinement fusion, the older schemes seem like child’s play.

I’m not going to get into the inanity of the approach, or all the details of why it won’t work, because there is a chance it might work. After a tremendous amount of research, it might, but it would be on par or longer than the amount of research that’s gone into other forms of fusion. When probed about the specific values of certain parameters like compression symmetries, magnetic field strengths, etc. this master businessman couldn’t answer with any acceptable level of scientific precision. Anyone who’s ever done research knows that “the simulations say it could happen” without qualifiers is a bullshit answer.

I’m not mad that he’s doing the research. I’m mad that he’s gotten so much funding for it, and is promising way more than he can produce. Idiots like him are the reason that scientists continue to have such a stereotypical image in Hollywood movies, and why people are reticent to trust their opinions unless they broadcast it in a way that markets well. The problem is that this is a self-feeding and destructive spiral–the scientists who are good at spinning webs to make their proposals look good are generally not good scientists. Generally speaking the good, honest scientists are the ones who will own up to the fact that, yes, there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty and unchartered ground we must cover before we solve an amazingly difficult problem.

This uncertainty is usually misinterpreted as a lack of expertise, when in actuality it’s the other way around. The encouragement of proposals that are “100% guaranteed” is heavily influenced by the fact that government officials almost never think past their own term in office. If you tell them something is going to take 20 years to develop, that’s equivalent in their eyes to saying it will never happen.

A few years ago a proposal for an Alberta Fusion Energy Institute was put forth. It’s been sitting in committee meetings ever since. Sometime in the 1980s Canada was going to be the site for the ITER tokamak, because all of the collaborating countries could only agree to let Canada, a semi-neutral country, have it. The Canadian government said no, perhaps because we only wanted to bring revenue into the country that was oil or natural-resource related.

Not if, but when General Fusion fails to live up to its promises, there will be one of two outcomes. The mastermind will spin another clever way to make laymen think that he really is closer than he is, and get more money. The other outcome is that everyone will realize how much of a colossal waste of money this was, and there will be a terribly bad series of newspaper articles saying how fusion scientists are fleecing the government and corporations alike.

If you’re in the position of potentially investing into a scientific endeavour, be wary of “sure things”. If you’re one of the scientists guilty of spinning bullshit better than you intend to spin your plasma, stop it. You’re not only making the rest of us look bad, but making us choke on our own vomit.

*The title of this post is from the Song Them by Dirty Circus.

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One Comment on “Open Up Your Eyelids if You’re Blind to the Science

  1. Hi man! I’ve just stopped by to thank you for this great website! Keep going that way.

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