Book: A Piece of the Sun

Despite seven decades of research, fusion's potential is still unclear, writes Rachel Courtland.

A Piece of the Sun: The Quest for Fusion Energy
By Daniel Clery
Gerald Duckworth & Co (2013)
RRP $42.99

Physicists are accustomed to the long game. It took nearly 50 years for the Higgs boson to go from theory to fact. And dark matter, the apparent galactic glue, remains unidentified 80 years after the first hint was found of its existence. But when it comes to longstanding scientific quests, fusion is in a league of its own. In the early years after humans harnessed the power of the atom, a future where fusion reactors provided bountiful, clean electricity seemed just around the corner. Nowadays, with research into fusion as an energy source in its seventh decade its potential remains uncertain.

Veteran physics writer Daniel Clery surveys the full arc of fusion research from its wartime roots to its status today as the centrepiece of an ambitious international effort. Clery vividly conveys the early excitement as to fusion’s possibilities followed by a decades-long roller coaster of triumph and frustration.

Clery begins his tale in the wake of World War II, when funding and ideas were plentiful and physicists still had little idea of the difficulties that lay ahead. His cast of characters includes James Tuck, a British-born physicist who was responsible for the whimsically named Perhapsatron, and Lyman Spitzer, the accomplished astrophysicist who found himself winding wire on the weekends for the first US fusion reactor.

This detailed chronicle opens a window into what the early days of fusion research were like, not only for the scientists involved but for the public as well. Early claims of success faded fast. One of those came from Britain’s ZETA project, which captured headlines in late 1957 and early 1958 only to have its claim of achieving fusion withdrawn within the year, when others cast doubt. For the public, Clery says, ZETA’s legacy was as an example of “British scientific hubris dashed upon the rocks of a problem more complex than foreseen”.

It can be hard to describe the mechanics of fusion, especially given the proliferation of different reactor designs that emerged over the years, but Clery accomplishes this task with his clear, evocative language. In contrast with that clarity, the reader might be a bit disappointed to find that Clerey leaves murky the answer to the one question that inevitably arises in any discussion of fusion energy: “will it ever work?”.

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