The world is moving towards alternative energy. Two giant laboratories, one in France, one in Texas, are engaged in a contest to give mankind a limitless source of energy—fusion, the energy source of stars. In France, the European Union is constructing the colossal ITER project. At CFRC, the Controlled Fusion Research Center near Austin, a scientists have constructed a machine they call Prometheus to challenge ITER. When the director of the Austin lab attempts to achieve fusion on the day of Prometheus’ dedication, a near-fatal accident ensues, and in an instant the rivalry between ITER and CFRC becomes a race to change the future of the world. But was it an accident, or sabotage? Firebird image: TIMOTHY HEMSOTH, with permission. Coronal mass ejection image: NASA/ESA
Prominent physicist and writer Tony Rothman, PhD, uses his technical expertise to create a rare and timely novel based on genuine science. Not science fiction, the science of Firebird is as real as the collision between science and politics it portrays. Rothman, who teaches physics at Princeton University, is the author of nine previous books including Sacred Mathematics: Japanese Temple Geometry (with Fukagawa Hidetoshi) and the classic science fiction novel The World is Round. He has won numerous writing awards and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Firebird – Intrigue in the world of fusion energy research.
Fireball, a new novel by author/cosmologist Tony Rothman, takes place in the world of magnetic fusion energy research – where scientists and engineers labor to provide humanity with a safe, inexhaustible form of nuclear energy. Fusion is considered by some to be the greatest scientific and technological challenge undertaken by humanity.
As a youngster, Rothman spent a substantial amount of time hanging around his father’s workplace, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, one of the world’s leading magnetic fusion labs. The author also spent time there as an adult leading to his writing Firebird. This, coupled with his education as physicist, has enabled him to portray an accurate picture of the climate, subculture, science and technology of fusion.
In existing nuclear power plants, electricity is produced by the splitting of uranium or plutonium atoms, a process known as fission, with its downside of catastrophic meltdowns (Chernobyl), and its extensive release of long-lived radioactive materials (Fukushima). Fusion, the joining of hydrogen atoms, could provide abundant, everlasting energy, without these problems.
In Fireball the action surrounds a fictitious magnetic fusion experiment, Prometheus, built in Texas with private funding. It’s a large complex, tokamak-type device that employs magnetic fields to confine a hot ionized gas, plasma – the fusion fuel – comprised of deuterium and tritium, the heavy isotopes hydrogen.
Large fusion facilities run in the billions of dollars, so only governments can afford to build and operate them. Generous corporate dollars for fusion is only a pipe-dream for real-world fusioneers, but in Firebird it is reality for the Controlled Fusion Research Center (CFRC) in Austin, Texas. With support from a consortium of private sources, their Prometheus tokamak was built to challenge a device called ITER in a race to achieve ignition, a self-sustained plasma -- the holy grail of fusion power. The ITER tokamak is a real-world fusion experiment now under construction at Cadarache, France with billions in funding from a consortium of governments. The lion’s share of ITER’s funding is coming from Europe, so portraying it as a European device is not unreasonable.
As Firebird unfolds, we are introduced to a cast of scientists and others with vagaries not unlike some of the individuals found working in large scientific facilities. Accurately, one of Rothman’s characters describes a tokamak as “a device too complex to allow you to make it into a sensible whole.” Throughout the novel, the author employs his first-hand knowledge of the myriad of subsystems essential to the operation of a real tokamak. Beyond this, readers familiar with the history of the U.S. magnetic fusion program will no doubt enjoy references to many real events thrown in by Rothman during the story, including the extraordinary worldwide hoopla over the 1989 Cold Fusion claims.
Early on we are intro