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Photographer's Note

ELEGANT EXPERIMENT — ELEGANT SCULPTURE

As a physicist, I regard the expression “an elegant experiment” as one that is designed to reveal a profound truth about nature with no more expenditure than is necessary. One does not have to use a sledgehammer to swat a fly when a fly swatter will do. The greatest scientists of the past — Galileo, Newton, Cavendish, Faraday, Rutherford — discovered some of the most fundamental physical laws essentially by carrying out ‘tabletop experiments.’ But in our more sophisticated age we must frequently spend billions of dollars to uncover nature’s deepest secrets, and table-top experiments will not do. Stanford University’s Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in California and CERN’s Hadron Collider just outside Geneva, Switzerland are two such experimental facilities that investigate sub-atomic particles at unimaginably high energies, and at unimaginably high costs.

THE ULTIMATE SOURCE OF ENERGY

To many physicists the ultimate source of energy — not only clean, but inexhaustible, and without the possibility of explosive reactions — calls for controlled nuclear fusion, or 'hot fusion.' This is not to be confused with nuclear fission achieved in nuclear power plants familiar to us all. Fuel for fission is exhaustible, and the by-products comprise radioactive waste with inherent disposal problems. Nor should hot fusion be confused with ‘cold fusion,’ which is a physical impossibility and an unfortunate sham.

In hot fusion a gas comprised of the heavy isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) is subjected to hundreds of millions of degrees of heat, and fuses into helium. It is the process that powers stars, and we know it works. At Princeton University’s Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL) “elegant experiments” have been carried out for half a century with a view toward achieving controlled hot fusion. The fuel is extracted from seawater, where sufficient supplies of heavy hydrogen exist for 10 billion years of human demand (and even the earth, nor humans have that much time). And the by-product of the fusion reaction is stable Helium, no radioactive waste there. By the middle of the 21st century controlled fusion plants should begin to proliferate around the world, and by the end of the century, replace fossil fuels completely as a means for supplying energy, especially electric. Three years ago I had posted a pair of image under the rubric of power: “Last Drop of Oil” and as “Power Plant”.

The apparatus seen in the photo is a small segment of a much larger circular path. It is meant to study the behavior of super-heated plasma (ionized gas) confined in magnetic fields. This segment, I am told, costs about one million dollars and is made of stainless steel. What appears to be modern abstract sculpture mimics the mathematical shape of the plasma. It is not appropriate for St. Valentine's Day except for its abstract beauty.

I had taken a group of my university students to Princeton, New Jersey. A group photo taken in front of Einstein’s house is seen in the workshop. I won't list their names here, but the group includes nine of the students in the class plus their professor. The two young men who look like identical twins are identical twins. I dedicate this photo to my uncommonly intelligent nuclear physics students.

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Additional Photos by Bulent Atalay (batalay) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 6774 W: 470 N: 12149] (41261)
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