Skip to main content

The Future of Fusion Energy - Jason Parisi and Justin Ball ***

There is no doubt that fusion, the power source of the Sun, has the potential to be a significant contributor to our future energy needs. It's clean, green and continuous, able to fill in the gaps where wind and solar simply can't deliver. It uses cheap fuel and doesn't produce much in the way of nasty waste. And it can't undergo any sort of runaway reaction. So it's certainly a worthy topic for a popular science title. This book covers one aspect of fusion power - tokamak reactors - in great depth for a relatively non-technical book. But as we will see, it will only really work for a limited audience.

You won't necessarily realise it from the cover, which I interpreted as emphasising that Homer Simpson will still have a job when Springfield Energy converts to fusion power, but Jason Parisi and Justin Ball have packed The Future of Fusion Energy with information on the detail of how fusion reactors work, and all the difficulties that are faced in getting a stable, lasting fusion reaction going. It's not an easy task, which is why it has taken so long. The authors say in their introduction 'Despite popular conception, fusion science and technology has made remarkable progress, compared to other fast-moving fields.' Really? This is a technology that in the 1960s was expected to be providing us cheap power within 30 years. Now, 60 years later... it's still good 30 years away from the likelihood of making a serious contribution to our electricity needs. What other 'fast-moving field' has those kinds of timescales?

Nonetheless, fusion is potentially highly important for the future of our energy supply. So should everyone read this book? Probably not. I suspect that it is an ideal source book either for journalists wanting to write about fusion, or students with an essay to compose. The first 260 pages provide a reference fact book on tokamak reactors. It's an excellent resource - but not a great read. There's important stuff in here on how the reactors work and don't work. And there's a useful section on the history of fusion reactors and on the building of the next generation ITER machine. But there's no narrative to it, just fact after fact. Only in that historical/ITER part and the final section where we see alternative options for fusion do we get anything that feels like popular science.

That's not to say that the fact sections aren't useful. Apart from lots of technical background, the section on ITER is salutary. This is a huge international project, which seems fraught with organisational problems. Unlike the building of the Large Hadron Collider - another huge international project that was relatively well managed (see CERN and the Higgs Boson), ITER looks like a textbook case of how not to manage a large project. One example that Parisi and Ball give is the way that parts of the reactor are being manufactured by different countries, leading to potential difficulties. As they comment about the fact that seven of the sections of the reaction vessel are being made in Europe and two in Korea: 'it caused uproar when word arrived at the ITER site that the Europeans were designing their sections to bolted together, while the South Koreans expected theirs to welded. From a project management standpoint, this boggles the mind.' Quite.

As far as I'm aware the technical content of the book is fine, though there was an odd part where the authors assess alternative means of electricity generation and point out that biomass is at least 20 times less efficient at converting sun power into electricity than solar… but still seem to advocate using it. That's odd.

Overall, a great source book for information on fusion, but not a great read. If you do persevere to the end, you will discover that the doughnuts on the cover are not a reference to Homer Simpson at all, but an obscure analogy for different means of producing fusion in the form of recipes for alternative types of sweet doughy products... though I found the analogy itself hard to follow. In a way, this sums the book up. The authors try to inject humour, which is great, but it needs much more narrative flow (and rather less detail) to work for a general reader.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 

An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …