Sun in a Bottle:  The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking

Posted by Rezwan Razani on Jan 02, 2012 at 10:25 AM
What do you think about this? Let us know in the comments below!

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Author: Charles Seife | @cgseife

The Good

This book is engaging, easy to read, and has a wealth of information about the history of fusion.  It explains fusion science in an accessible manner.  A great introduction to some difficult concepts.

The Not So Good

The book has an odd anti-experimental bias.  Seife seems to consider lack of commercial success to be a character flaw and “failure” an embarrassment.  The overall tone of the book stands in stark contrast to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s take on scientists in “The Black Swan.” 

After reading Seife’s book, you get the impression the author did not get his fusion pony for Christmas and is very bitter.  The opportunity for constructive reflection in the style of FailFaire is tossed aside in favor of a litany of the usual fusion complaints.

From the jacket:

When weapons builders detonated the first hydrogen bomb in 1952, they tapped into the biggest source of energy in our solar system - the phenomenon that makes the sun shine.  Nuclear fusion seems a virtually unlimited source of power, but it has been at the center of a tragic and comic pursuit that has left scores of scientists battered and disgraced…

Scientists, even amatuers, and governments have spent almost unfathomable wealth trying to fulfill the dream, attempting to bottle the sun with lasers, magnets, sound waves, particle beams, and chunks of metal.  Right now the world’s richest countries are spending billions of dollars trying to build a giant fusion reactor.  Yet if history is any guide, the money will not bring the dream of fusion energy within reach.  Indeed, the quest for fusion energy has been a failure, generation after generation.  Over and over again, desperate scientists have deceived themselves and their peers - and cheated - in hopes of keeping the fusion quest alive and becoming the masters of unlimited power.

Is it just me?  This last sentence gives me the impression that Seife wants to kill the “Fusion Quest” and thwart humanity from mastering unlimited power.  That puts him on track to earn the coveted “Fusion Threshold Guardian” award, although many others are vying for the title.

Your thoughts?


R. Goldston‘s review:

This book is mostly about the early history of fusion research, and about the more recent fiascos where lone-wolf researchers have claimed breakthroughs without adequate scientific basis.

If you are interested in cold and bubble fusion, and how the press has dealt with them, this is a good book for you. On the other hand, Seife devotes relatively little ink to the scientists and engineers worldwide who are working to develop fusion, on the basis of peer-reviewed, replicable research. He also doesn’t systematically review the literature on progress in fusion, on the remaining challenges, and on why it is attractive as an energy source.

When I started in this field as a graduate student we made 1/10 of a Watt of fusion heat in a pulse of 1/100 of second. Now the record is in the range of 10 million Watts for a second. That is an improvement by an overall factor of 10 billion. The international ITER project will produce 500 million Watts of fusion heat for periods of at least 300 - 500 seconds. We have further to go, and lots of challenges, but fusion has large advantages in safety, waste and nuclear proliferation. There are relatively few options for large-scale, long-term, steady electric power production, and they all need to be explored.


Despite its negativity, the book is easy reading and has a lot of useful information. 

Just don’t put this guy in charge of heroic quests for breakthroughs on the frontier of knowledge.

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 Sun in a Bottle:  The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking

Take action!

Eschew Seife’s fusion paralysis outlook.  Read Francis Chen’s “Indispensible Truth” instead!


Seife’s book is steeped in fears of failure.  Why not leverage failure?  See FailFaire.

A question of cost

Seife’s book proclaims that we have spent “unfathomable wealth” in the pursuit of fusion.  Have we?

Fun Fact:

Charles Seife went on to write “Proofiness:  The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception”. 

Too bad Chuckles wrote this book after “Sun in a Bottle”, as the phrase “almost unfathomable wealth” is clearly an example of dark proofiness in action.

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