Friday, February 28, 2014

ITER: THIS IS COOL, THIS IS REAL, THIS IS VERY SCARY!



Years from now—maybe in a decade, maybe sooner—if all goes according to plan, the most complex machine ever built will be switched on in an Alpine forest in the South of France. The machine, called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or iter, will stand a hundred feet tall, and it will weigh twenty-three thousand tons—more than twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower. At its core, densely packed high-precision equipment will encase a cavernous vacuum chamber, in which a super-hot cloud of heavy hydrogen will rotate faster than the speed of sound, twisting like a strand of DNA as it circulates. The cloud will be scorched by electric current (a surge so forceful that it will make lightning seem like a tiny arc of static electricity), and bombarded by concentrated waves of radiation. Beams of uncharged particles—the energy in them so great it could vaporize a car in seconds—will pour into the chamber, adding tremendous heat. In this way, the circulating hydrogen will become ionized, and achieve temperatures exceeding two hundred million degrees Celsius—more than ten times as hot as the sun at its blazing core.
No natural phenomenon on Earth will be hotter. Like the sun, the cloud will go nuclear. The zooming hydrogen atoms, in a state of extreme kinetic excitement, will slam into one another, fusing to form a new element—helium—and with each atomic coupling explosive energy will be released: intense heat, gamma rays, X rays, a torrential flux of fast-moving neutrons propelled in every direction. There isn’t a physical substance that could contain such a thing. Metals, plastics, ceramics, concrete, even pure diamond—all would be obliterated on contact, and so the machine will hold the superheated cloud in a “magnetic bottle,” using the largest system of superconducting magnets in the world. Just feet from the reactor’s core, the magnets will be cooled to two hundred and sixty-nine degrees below zero, nearly the temperature of deep space. Caught in the grip of their titanic forces, the artificial earthbound sun will be suspended, under tremendous pressure, in the pristine nothingness of iter’s vacuum interior.
This is the beginning of an article in the New Yorker magazine. ITER is for real, and is now under construction in southern France. It's hard to imagine what this will actually look like once it is operation. If, in fact, we could get close enough to actually see it. This could be the future of energy for the humans on planet Earth...WOW! 
But this also scares the hell out of me. What are the risks? What happens if something goes wrong and it goes out of control? Is that possible? Have the scientists thought of every possible contingency? And what if they don't actually have the knowledge to know every possible outcome? I can visualize a scene in a movie where they start this reaction, everything goes along just fine, until one of the scientists, with a horrified look on her face, says quietly: "Uh oh...."  
Are there boundaries on scientific inquiry that we just shouldn't go beyond? We see this in sci-fi movies all the time, but does it actually happen in real life? Maybe it already has in multiple instances; genetic engineering, nuclear weapons, biological warfare, and etc. 
One of my biggest regrets about my eventual death is that I won't be around to see how all of this turns out. If only I could travel into the future, like Dr. Who, and see how the decisions of my time play out centuries from now. Maybe there will be holy sites, the Temples of ITER, where great flaming globes, like eyeballs, suspended in the air between giant magnets, are worshiped by the tribal masses who bow down and offer sacrifices to this god that has existed throughout the eons of time. 
Oh Great and Glorious and Terrible ITER, we who are humble bow down to you and offer our first born as a pledge of our fealty.  Provide us with heat and light, oh Mighty ITER, that we might subsist in our humble and meager hovels. And please, oh Gracious Lord ITER, never interrupt our broadband so that we may continue to be on Facebook 24/7.  

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