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Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking [Kindle Edition]

Charles Seife
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $17.00
Kindle Price: $11.84
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Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC

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Book Description

With his knack for translating science into understandable, anecdotal prose and his trademark dry humor, award-winning science writer Charles Seife presents the first narrative account of the history of fusion for general readers in more than a decade. Tracing the story from its beginning into the twenty-first century, Sun in a Bottle reveals fusion's explosive role in some of the biggest scientific scandals of all time. Throughout this journey, he introduces us to the daring geniuses, villains, and victims of fusion science. With the giant international fusion project ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) now under construction, it's clear that the science of wishful thinking is as strong as ever. This book is our key to understanding why.


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Fifty years ago scientists and futurists glowingly predicted a future in which cars would run on little fusion cells and the world would extract deuterium from the oceans for an inexhaustible supply of energy. Like all too many shining visions, fusion turned out to be a mirage. Award-winning science journalist Seife (Zero) takes a long, hard look at nuclear fusion and the failure of one scheme after another to turn it into a sustainable energy source. Many readers will remember the 1989 cold fusion debacle, but Seife explains why tabletop fusion isn't all that difficult to achieve. The problem, as with all fusion devices except the hydrogen bomb, is to produce more energy than the fusion process consumes. The two most promising approaches today use plasma and lasers, but again, Seife reports, scientists have been repeatedly frustrated. The United States and several other industrial nations recently agreed optimistically to sink billions of dollars into a 30-year fusion power project. Seife's approachable book should interest everyone concerned about finding alternative energy sources. (Nov. 3)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

It’s the energy source of the future, and always will be; that’s the rap on nuclear fusion. Reviewing its development—which at present is embodied in two big-science installations in California and France—Seife clarifies the devilish complexities of containing a fusion reaction. The idea’s tantalizing physical simplicity and the allure of earning unbounded riches from unlimited power has repeatedly tempted scientists, whose excess optimism, hubris, and self-deception propel the technical side of Seife’s account. A seasoned science author (most recently, Decoding the Universe, 2006), Seife shines in explaining how hydrogen’s behavior at solarlike temperatures has so far defeated the two conventional devices for taming it: magnets and lasers. With high-energy physics at an impasse, eccentric claims of room-temperature fusion gained a hearing. Remember the cold-fusion nondiscovery of 1989? Seife writes up two other claims of low-temperature fusion that similarly could not be replicated, the sine qua non of scientific proof. Informed and perceptive, Seife ably melds physics and public policy (fusion has consumed billions of dollars) into a fine presentation for general-interest readers. --Gilbert Taylor

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
80 of 85 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Focussed on the Lone Wolves November 9, 2008
Format:Hardcover
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.
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87 of 99 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Seife's book, "Sun In A Bottle", is an illogical attack against scientists working in the modern fields of magnetic fusion energy research or inertial confinement fusion research. Seife uses a deceptive style to argue against government funding for fusion research in his book, "Sun In A Bottle". Seife employs "Fusion research", as an umbrella term to encompass research that spans decades, and yes, has involved some rather nasty characters who have indeed conducted themselves poorly1. But these men to whom Seife devotes much of his book do not represent the community of researchers who work today in magnetic fusion energy research2, which is the relevant category of physics to consider if discussing the ITER project3. If you doubt that "Sun in a Bottle" is an attack on magnetic fusion research and on ITER, I point out that on the last two pages of the book "Sun in a Bottle", Seife concludes his argument that all of fusion research is a failure and will never work due to the "intemperate self-deception" of fusion researchers (page 227) as he concludes with a suggestion to the reader: fission research should be pursued instead of fusion research (page 226). Seife's arguments against pursuing fusion as an energy source are identical to making arguments against cancer research by making a list of attempts to cure cancer that have not worked, by finding a few examples of liars who have worked in the field sometime during the past 60 years, and then generalizing to make a final statement that cancer research funding should be halted. Here is how that argument goes: "Some scientists claim to be able to cure cancer with alternative medicine, herbs, and crystals. Read more ›
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History of the Quest for Fusion Power March 2, 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I read "Sun in a Bottle" because I have previously worked on tokamak technology in graduate school, and because I read a previous book by this author (Decoding the Universe), which I found to be very good. I was not disappointed because I found, like many others including at least some critics in this review list, that it was difficult to put down. "Sun in a Bottle" is basically a history book, and many of the stories are quite interesting. Probably few readers will have heard all of the details of many of the stories. Like any history book, the author's biases color the stories, but how else could it be? The author does unfairly leave the reader with the impression that there is little hope for fusion power in the foreseeable future. The mainstream magnetic confinement fusion effort has demonstrated that particle and energy confinement times increase with the device size. All indications are that a useful power-producing device will have to be big. Big things are expensive. The author cringes at the price tag of $5-10 billion dollars for ITER, ignoring the fact that the US alone is spending hundreds of billions of dollars over periods of a few years to control the oil production and the profits thereof in Iraq. The point of fusion is to replace oil, so the price tag is hardly outlandish. The indication that power producing fusion devices will have to be big is actually a good thing. Fusion reactions involving deuterium produce a lot more neutrons per joule of energy released than fission reactions. If power production from tabletop fusion were actually possible, it would be relatively easy to convert plentiful uranium 238 into plutonium, and thereafter manufacture an atomic bomb.
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32 of 41 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Poor Scientific Journalism January 3, 2009
By Nazdar
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"Sun in a Bottle" is more of a history lesson than a book of science. The first 75 pages describes the development of the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb, which here is more a story of the rivalry between Oppenheimer and Teller that is ultimately won by Teller. My own view is that this portion of the book is unnecessary since the story of bomb development has been told many times before and in much greater detail.

The rest of the book is about the development of fusion as a power source. The author chooses to focus on the missteps and blind alleys of research rather than the progress that has been made. The stories are entertaining, but clearly one sided. He avoids technical information, except for general concepts, perhaps feeling that the reading audience is unable to understand or that the technical information does not have enough pizzazz to make a best seller.

The main problem I have with this book is that the author is ready to give up on a power source that has great promise but great problems to overcome. Development of a commercial fusion reactor is complex and expensive, but so have been other projects that ultimately have been successful. An example is the space program. I am old enough to remember the early days of the US space program with rocket after rocket blowing up on the launch pad. Considering the failures and costs, the author would have likely concluded that successful space travel was the wishful thinking of "scientists, drunk with the promise of personal glory."

If you are looking for entertaining stories, then you might enjoy this book. If you are looking for a balanced evaluation of fusion with accompanying technical information, this is not the book for you.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book on the current state and history of fusion.
Great book. Wry readable and informative. Presents the history of fusion research in an easily understood format for a non physicist.
Published 6 months ago by RPAbramowitz
5.0 out of 5 stars mom and teenage daugher review
My daughter chose this book for her math book report and loved it. She said it made her feel super smart....so not only did she learn she also enjoyed it. Read more
Published 14 months ago by moms review
5.0 out of 5 stars Nuclear fusion is fascinating, and the quest to make it cheap even...
Because I'm a HUGE NERD, I find fusion very interesting, which is why I bought this book. But in fact I think just about anyone who enjoys tales of geniuses driven mad by obsession... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Tom Braun
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly explains the whimsy of fusion, succinctly exposes the farce...
This book will briefly discuss some basic physics of fusion and fission. My favorite part of the book is the explanation of the cold fusion fiasco. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Ben Cartwright
4.0 out of 5 stars Fusion: Peaceful Power for the Poor?
Charles Seife's book on the history of fusion energy programs is an excellent summary of the quest for controlled thermonuclear fusion carried out over the past 50 years. Read more
Published 17 months ago by ALAN J TOEPFER
4.0 out of 5 stars Impressed
I purchased this book to satisfy a long lingering curiosity about the subject of fusion. I'm nearly 40 years old with a somewhat faded recollection of my high school / college... Read more
Published on August 23, 2012 by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars A note about Fusion Research, I have NOT read the book
I worked as a student summer worker at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in the late 1970's. That was the era in which Tokamaks of the size approaching what was then thought... Read more
Published on January 29, 2012 by R. Van Wagner
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic
This is great for anyone interested in the history of energy. Once i picked this up i was not able to put it down until I was finished. highly Recommended!
Published on October 26, 2011 by DisablingSpider
4.0 out of 5 stars Great!
I really enjoyed this book, my last contact with science was in high school yet this was so clearly written and explained the raw basics of the underlying problems in creating... Read more
Published on October 23, 2011 by Law student
3.0 out of 5 stars The sad history of fusion
The world's first fission bomb (Trinity) was exploded in 1945, and the world's first fission power plant (in Obninsk, Russia) was connected to the grid in 1954, 9 years later. Read more
Published on October 23, 2010 by Ilya
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More About the Author

Charles Seife is a correspondent for Science, a London--based international weekly science magazine. He has written for Scientific American, The Economist, Wired UK, The Sciences, and numerous other publications. He has a masters degree in mathematics from Yale.

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