No Snark Sunday: Fusion and all that Jazz

Once, on a research project for an ad agency trying to come up with a campaign for long term health care insurance we found a weird thing: When you told people they have a 30% chance of needing nursing care, they would be less likely to buy it than if you didn’t, actually mention that. It completely weirded us out. You’re supposed to tell people the problem and then sell them the solution, that’s the whole job. Like, Problem: “You’ve got ring around the collar!” Solution: “Try Wisk! No, don’t drink it you idiot!” (advertising research could get pretty weird)

But in this case actually telling people about the reality made them far less likely to act. In interviews after the primary research with people whom we had told they stood a good chance of needing long term care, they mostly threw up their hands and were like, “Well, whatever. It’s in God’s hands, not mine.” It made them want to steadfastly do nothing, as if aggressively ignoring the problem would somehow make it go away, like a bee flying around your head

Just sit still and ignore it and it will go away

Just sit still and ignore it and it will go away

It’s what psychoanalysis calls “resistance.” You can caution me about a small problem, like that I have spinach between my teeth and I’ll act, and you can warn me about an acute problem, like my suit is on fire, and I’ll roll around on the ground.  But try and get me to deal with something big and long-term that is going to cause me a massive amount of psychological pain and I just shut down and do nothing. This is because we humans are, for all our intelligence about some things, complete fuckwits about others.

No I do not have a cigar

No I do not have a cigar

Thus, we have such a hard time managing big, societal problems. When faced with them a significant population of people just throw up their hands and say, “It’s too big!” and another, much stupider, bunch go into full-bore denial mode and start coming up with crazy-ass stories about the chemtrails and the Masons and the Rothschilds or drop some brain turd like about how a bunch of scientists got together and agreed on faked global climate research at which point I splurt hot coffee out my nose from laughter. I work with scientists a lot and you can’t get any two of them to agree on anything even when we’re trying to simply explain what a product actually does, right there, on the bench in the lab, in front of our faces.

What you learn about managing big problems is that you need to A) break it down into smaller, digestible pieces (“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Pilot speaking, I want to highlight a single problem we’re having right now and that’s the loss of our starboard wing”) and B) Make sure there is optimism. That one is tough when you’re dealing with situations like the climate where you can kind of get to Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic living without much effort. You have to show people there is hope that the future is bright. Like, for instance the Mad Max lifestyle will mean lots of fresh-air and exciting wardrobe choices.

Tina rocked it

Tina rocked it

With that in mind, I’m going to drop some really good news on y’all. Everyone who isn’t a total dipshit knows climate change is a massive challenge facing everyone on the planet. But there is a really good chance that if we can keep it in check by doing some of the right things in the short term, the incredible advances being made in fusion energy research will save our asses in not-too-long a time.

Nuclear reactors of today work using the principle of fission, splitting atoms. It’s messy, hard to control, produces a lot of waste, has a lot of safety issues and is tremendously expensive to scale up and it’s increasingly difficult to economically produce fuel. Fusion is smooshing (technical term) atoms together is what powers the Sun and will be an amazing energy source right here on Earth once we learn to sustain the reactions. But the good news is that, unlike fission which needs to be shut down to keep the reaction from running away, fusion can be turned off like a light switch and the reaction won’t continue, explode or produce dangerous radiation.

Behold! Whats going to save our asses!

Behold! Whats going to save our asses!

I’ve been following the progress since I was a kid (Science fiction author Robert Heinlein always talked about it) and even though it’s been around for 50 years, it’s really only the last 20 years there have been tremendous breakthroughs in making is useful for more than weapons. There are incredible experiments going on in California and an ongoing international project in France is making an actual fusion reactor. As we learn more the progress tends to become exponential, especially as we get better with material production and computer modeling using artificial intelligence. I could tell you more but so many words, just watch the video. Yeah, it’s nine minutes and the guy is a nerd, but it’s the future of our species so maybe worth the watch?

This is not a pipe dream. The experiments going on in other places are also making tremendous progress. The estimate, and it’s not overly-optimistic- is that we can have fusion up and running by 2030.

That is not a long time. What we need to do between now and then is work on the intermittent technologies, the renewables and efficient systems. We need to keep our consumption in check. We need to fully fund the science and hold our government and others accountable and let public interest not specific industries make the decisions.

Mostly we need to not lose hope, because this power source is coming. Fusion happens in nature, in fact most of the visible universe is made up of plasma made from fusion. In just the past 85 years we’ve split the atom, harnessed its energy, albeit crudely via fission, and now it’s time to move to the far more elegant and efficient and exponentially less risky fusion.

Pictured: Not you

Pictured: Not you

And since the planet and our species and society will likely survive, it’s far less likely  your polished skull will wind up as the hood ornament of a spike-covered dune buggy. So you should probably also get long term care insurance, is what I’m saying.

4 thoughts on “No Snark Sunday: Fusion and all that Jazz

  1. Good piece, but Jim, about halfway through (in the paragraph beginning “Nuclear reactors of today…”) your spell checker decided you meant to write “fission” when in fact you meant “fusion” so the las two sentences make no sense. Pls fix!

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  2. Warn people they have a 30% chance of needing long term health insurance and they are even less likely to purchase it? You are describing the backfire effect:

    http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/i-dont-want-to-be-right

    A totally depressing phenomena which explains why you can’t convince people they are nitwits about global warming, or vaccines, or GMOs or even something as simple and effective as fluoride.

    Crazy. Good luck convincing the nitwits that fusion will save them, oh look the starboard engine just fell off maybe we could replace it with a fusion engine. That will work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • People either expect too much out of science or too little. “We went to the moon, why can’t we cure the common cold…” Um, because going to the moon was a purely engineering problems that we’d invested about an equivalent trillion dollars into solving during the Cold War and the common cold is a virus and is a completely different field of sicene maybe?

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