Friday, November 20, 2009

Thoughts of a non-scientist in honor of Science Friday . . .

On Talk of the Nation Science Friday, Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan and his flock of generalist guests and guest hosts make way for host Ira Flatow and his scientific flock. I am always surprised by how interesting Mr. Flatow makes topics I've always thought wouldn't interest me at all.

So it was in honor of Science Friday that I expanded my scientific exposure to include an article in the new essay-format Newsweek this week; an article that asks if that little safety-razor thingamabob pictured above contains something that in the not-all-that-distant future could power the world.

That little thingamabob, it seems, is at the heart of controlled nuclear fusion. 

"At its heart is a tiny pellet that will hold a few milligrams of deuterium and tritium, isotopes of hydrogen that can be extracted from water. If you blast the pellet with a powerful laser," the theory goes (according to Newsweek, from which this description is lifted), "you can create a reaction like the one that takes place at the center of the sun."

Edward Moses of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory thinks it can. He's spent billions researching and building the necessary laser at his lab, the National  Ignition Facility (NIF).

Another high-powered power person, Thomas Cochran, senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, who has been tracking Moses' project since it began in 1997, pretty much seems to thinks Moses' work is poppycock.

Science Friday host Ira Flatow took note of controlled nuclear fusion on NPR's now-defunct Day to Day back in 2005. All I know about controlled nuclear fusion is what I read in Newsweek and in the transcript of that one NPR story. I am in no way qualified to have an opinion on whether or not it may one day be able to satiate our world's seemingly insatiable appetite for energy. I do know that the research going into this solution has already cost billions and will certainly cost billions more.

I'm not a physicist, but I do have a sister who's one. And I remember well her spending months and months of time in Washington working out of the late Senator Ted Kennedy's office, part of a team putting together a funding proposal for National Institute of Science. I remember her passionate advocacy for funding pure scientific research, because, she'd say, it's when you give scientists enough time, space, equipment and materials that they make the discoveries--sometimes purposely, sometimes as collateral  breakthroughs--that advance humankind's knowledge and so humankind's general well-being.

I may just be my sister's sister, but to me, it seems the pinnacle of wisdom to invest heavily in scientists' hunger to question, to poke around, to discover.

As to funding Edward Moses' thingamabob in particular? We don't yet know the efficacy of controlled nuclear fusion. The NIF's miniature safety razor might one day power the world, or it might not. All we can be sure of is that we won't know, if we don't fund. And we also won't have the collateral advancements in optics, laser design, and material science that researching controlled nuclear fusion brings with it.

We as a nation fund so much these days that depresses me. I, personally, find it so very pleasant to think that a small chunk of our nation's change is going toward finding out if controlled nuclear fusion works.

Here's to scientists! May you stay curious; may we as a nation keep funneling you a few of our spare billions.

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