walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

flat earthers, Real Science and we're gonna power uuuuuuupp

Friedman (that would be the Flat Earth reference) has a column over at NYT (which I will not link to) touting the National Ignition Facility and implying (the language is not wholly clear) that Clean, Cheap, Abundant Fusion Energy will be here in 10 Years! (that would explain the Jack's Big Music Show reference from "Spunky the Alien").

I am skeptical.

Once Upon a Time, when I was in college, everyone was atwitter for a few months over cold fusion. I won't say We All Know How That Turned Out, because that story is fairly complex and I'm not prepared to get into it. At the time, we knew fusion worked, but getting it to happen without (a) fission or (b) extremely energy expensive and unstable magnetic bottles was not really in the cards. What the NIF is doing is Really Exciting if it works (they're wrapping up building the lab, basically). The magnetic bottles got us to energy break-even; the NIF should net out more energy than is put in.

Unfortunately, Friedman breezes through the build-a-pilot-plant stage. This is a big deal. He talks about heating up something, making steam, turning turbines to make electricity. But efficiency really does matter and honestly, they haven't figured out how to capture the energy at all, yet. Once they have a plan or plans, the pilot plant stage is where they then take the Brilliant Research and turn it into Engineering. And after that, rolling it out across the country and around the world is called Productization.

Once Upon a Time, when I was in college (maybe a year after the cold fusion excitement), a couple of Extremely Brilliant Young Men of my acquaintance became wholly convinced that eBooks would overtake paper books within a few years. We made a bet on the subject (1 JW -- me -- and 2 Seventh Day Adventists. Betting. Yup. Those were the days). I said it wasn't going to happen any time soon, and my argument largely revolved around display issues (too tiring on the eyes) and secondarily around form factor (laptops were rare in those days and crazy expensive). They didn't buy it. To be fair, a lot of tech-types at that time engaged in pie-in-the-sky -> product with no intervening steps (viz. read the wikipedia entry on the Apple Newton). Now -- about 18 years later -- there's significant debate about whether _an actual product with actual sales in the hundreds of thousands_ might make any meaningful dent in the book market.

Will fusion be a meaningful source of power in our future? Let's just say that if it isn't, our civilization won't outlast my children's lifetime in any obviously recognizable form. Will it be supplying our electricity before my kids are in college?

I seriously doubt it.

Friedman is right to be skeptical of things which are perpetually 20 years away. But just because something has genuinely entered the 20 yearish time frame doesn't give it a free pass to be 10 years away. That's a bunch of foolishness.

On the subject of the craziness that was the Newton, one does have to wonder if that partially explains Apple's comparatively late entry to the mini-notebook game. Who at Apple wanted to do _that_ again? I'm still reeling from the "Architect Scenario" description. This is _exactly_ why not to put IT guys in charge of the feature set. I wonder how many times in real life any residential architect does what the Newton was designed to help the architect do?
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