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Fun in Fusion: The Big Bang Theory

By: , Posted on: June 25, 2014

The author dressed for the DragonCon Festival and a talk to fans of The Big Bang Theory.

The wonderfully imaginative and humorous television program The Big Bang Theory follows the misadventures of an eccentric bunch of CalTech scientists as they cope with life, love, and competing in the scientific arena. While the behavior of these characters is exaggerated, I am sure that most scientists have encountered every individual aspect of their attitudes—imagination, arrogance, frustration, complacency, incompetence, jealousy—and their strange interactions with each other and with non-scientists.

My memoir, Fun in Fusion Research recounts some of my experiences in the field of fusion energy research and captures many aspects of this humor. From leading scientist, Marshall Rosenbluth’s definition of a theoretical physicist—“I am a genius. You are obscure. He is a plagiarist.” To an encounter with Edward Teller where, at the end of a regularly interrupted attempt to answer his questions about the fusion program at the Oak Ridge National, he announced, “I (finger raised) … am a very good listener,… but only to myself.” And on to the wit of Japanese scientists—Hideo Ikegami’s response to what the R stood for in the R-project (a wimpy Japanese deuterium-tritium tokamak proposed as a counter to the European JET and U.S. TFTR tokamaks), “The R stands for Learner.”

But, as in most fields, despite the occasional failure, over-selling and subsequent disappointments, progress has been sustained and impressive. Magnetic fusion’s International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is being constructed in the South of France, and while the project has issues (a lot to do with the way it was set up), I am sure this incredible international collaboration will overcome its difficulties and be a success. Similarly, in the inertial fusion energy area, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) has encountered problems in achieving ignition on the timescale envisioned. Here, there are lessons to be learned from a similar situation described in the Shiva Winners Altruistic Trust— the earlier Shiva laser facility ultimately achieved its goals.

Fun in Fusion Research

John is the author of Plasma Scattering of Electromagnetic Radiation, Academic Press, 1975, and a co-author of the updated version available on the Elsevier Store. He is also author of Fun in Fusion Research which is available on the Elsevier Store at a 30% discount. Just use discount code “STC3014” at checkout and save!

Read more from John about fusion research and the National Ignition Facility here on SciTech Connect.

About the Author

John SheffieldJohn Sheffield is known worldwide because of his involvement in numerous multi-national fusion energy projects fro the U.S. and Europe: In the 1970s, he was on the design team for the 16 nation, Joint European Torus project at Culham in England; in the 1990s, he served as a U.S. representative on committees that defined and then gave technical advice to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)—China, Europe, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States.

John received his BSc from Imperial College, London and an MSc and PhD from London University.   He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and of the American Nuclear Society.

He served on the US-DOE’s Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee for over a decade, chairing it from 1996 to 2000. From 1988 to 1994, he was director of Fusion Energy at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. From 1995 to 2003, he was director for Energy Technology Programs at ORNL, and from 1997 also director of the Joint Institute for Energy and Environment at the University of Tennessee. There he remains as a Senior Fellow in what is now called the Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment. He served recently on a National Academy of Sciences committee reviewing inertial fusion energy, and on an Electrical Power Research Institute committee reviewing near term options for fusion energy.


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