Older whiskey, younger women, faster cars, more money.

Posted by Rezwan on Jan 17, 2011 at 10:11 AM
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In a country song, a youth once asked an old cowboy about the secret to life.  The response was “Older whiskey, younger women, faster cars, more money.” 

This line captures the essence of the ideal fusion program.

  • Why a country song?
  • Current fusion song:  “All hands on deck for ITER”
  • Older Whiskey
    • Older:  Commitment to the long term
    • Whiskey:  Metaphor for plasma, support of basic plasma physics
    • Bonus metaphor for the Big Questions of particles and cosmos
    • Bonus oil conservation metaphor.
  • Younger Women
    • Younger:  Commitment to students, youth, university programs.
    • Women:  More women in science, diversity.
    • Support fresh approaches to fusion problems.
    • Festivity and bringing more people to the fusion party (pro-fusion culture)
  • Faster Cars
    • Cars (plural):  Multiple Experimental Device approach. 
    • Faster:  accelerate the pace, make it a priority.
    • Car racing metaphor:  Leveraging competition and spectator sports to end “fusion fatigue”.
  • More Money
    • Commitment to funding. 
    • Rejection of zero sum game.
  • Band Practice

Why a country song?

It may seem trivializing and naive, but if it’s sticky, it’s worth it. 

The “older whiskey” quote above is a variation of a Tom Hall song, “Faster Horses”.  It stuck in my head when I was trying to summarize the key points of a comprehensive fusion plan.  Each word corresponds to an important part of the plan. 

On a related note, the idea of “singing” as a fusion policy metaphor goes back decades.

...fusion scientists had to “sing in harmony,” both with each other and with the U.S. Department of Energy, to maintain their budget.  For magnetic-confinement research this led to a weeding out of machine concepts in favor of the tokamak. (Weisel, p. 424)

The tokamak song has been at the top of the OFES fusion charts for ages.  It’s there today, to the tune of “All hands on deck for ITER” (the international tokamak project). 

We’re hoping “older whiskey” schema will climb higher on the charts. 

All Hands on Deck for ITER

“All Hands on Deck for ITER,” gets a lot of airplay at OFES. 

Unfortunately, its message feels like:

Everyone pile into our big, clunky station wagon for a long trip to grandma’s house, and no backtalk or I’ll whack you from the driver’s seat.

The driver is in no mood to argue.  He’s stressed that we won’t have enough cash to get to grandma’s house and thinks the kids are all pretty naive if they think they can stop the station wagon, get out, take pieces off of it and make other vehicles and use those to get to grandmas. 

The driver has been managing the bills and feels the repo man (fickle congress) breathing down his neck.  If you change the “all hands” tune, everything will fall apart.  The repo man will take back everything, and you’ll all be sitting in the dirt, arguing.  It’s Iter-wagon or bust. 

The fusion program is more diverse than “all hands” indicates.  The song is not accurate.  The question then is, is it trying to be accurate?  Will everything but ITER be gutted soon?  Things seem to be headed in that direction.

Or is the line just designed to soothe a simple congress -  but it’s not reflective of the complex policy?  If so, could there be a better tune to sing that is more accurate and might motivate congress in a more pro-active way? 

We’re rolling along in the station wagon.  The radio is playing “all hands”, but the tune isn’t locked in.  Now and again, you hear some static override and strains of “older whiskey” come through.

Let’s listen in:

Older Whiskey

Older:  Commitment to the Long Term

The word “Older” is a call for long term commitment.  Fusion research sputters along in starts and stops.  Programs are cut and experimental devices mothballed at whim.  Fusion is underfunded.  Fusion scientists are underappreciated

Fusion is a major challenge that affects the entire planet.  This is the technological barrier of our civilization.  We need to be fully committed to breaking through.  This needs to be a clearly stated objective of a fusion program.

Hopefully, once we commit to doing what ever it takes, however long it takes, to get it done, we will be surprised by more rapid results.

Whiskey:  Metaphor for plasma, support of basic plasma physics

The word “Whiskey” here is a metaphor for plasma.  (See “Food”). 

The challenge for the fusion community is to communicate how great plasma is.  Taste the whiskey, drink the cool-aid, develop a thirst for plasma. 

We need a world of plasma-holics.  Why?

Basic plasma research is a key part of any fusion program but:

...when the community sought to present plasma physics to the AEC, the NSF, or to Congress as a basic science devoted to the general investigation of plasmas, it met with indifference and modest funding. (Weisel)

Many people who claim to be supporters of fusion don’t see the value of the basics.  They say things like, “Those fusion people are just interested in manufacturing PhD’s.  If they want fusion to work, they need to build machines!”  Well, yes, we need that too.  But you can’t skimp on basic science:

“If you want to study water waves, drop a pebble into a quiet puddle - not into the surf at the seashore.”  Or as Francis Chen put it:  “Usually fusion reactors have such complicated geometries that it would be almost impossible to make careful analysis of what is going on.  This is the rationale for having small, simple experiments.”  (Weisel, p. 411)

Good news:  The basic science is relatively cheap.  You can fund a lot of university programs and get a lot of people working on the issues.  This can have a big pro-fusion payoff.

Older Whiskey as a metaphor for the Big Questions

Actually, “older whiskey” is a metaphor for the plasma universe.  It’s old.  And it’s made of 99.9% plasma.  Which has been “distilling” for billions of years.  Plasma physics is the study of plasma.  It looks into the smallest particles, and scales up to the cosmos.  Plasma physicists, then, trample around “Big Questions” territory.

Gary Weisel‘s article compares the work of plasma physicists with the work of cosmologists and particle physicists.  The plasma physicists “have seen their work as the long-term and exhaustive characterization of the “fourth state of matter.”  The others are working on the more prestigious “Big Questions”. 

The tension between these two approaches is a key part of Weisel’s concern.  “Older whiskey” here is a loose placeholder to remind us to consider the way plasma physics is evolving as a field, and how it can connect with the big physics questions; ways of relating plasma physics with other physics communities and endeavors. 

Bonus metaphor:  Value of oil

Older Whiskey” can refer to oil and the need to let it age so that we can savor it for a long time to come. 

For some reason, our civilization is hell bent on burning up every drop of oil as quickly as possible to fuel our economy.  But oil is a valuable liquid that has so many purposes beyond fuel.  We need to start treating it like the high value thing it is (think John Jamison, battling a giant octopus), not simply burn it. 

In other words, get folks to see, you’re not just burning gasoline, you’re setting fire to your prized casks of old whiskey.  What a waste! 

If you have to burn up that whiskey, invest some of the money back into finding alternatives so that you can stop burning it and save the oil for millennia to come, rather than a few more decades. 

Younger Women

Not to be sexist or age-ist.  The “younger women” metaphor covers a lot of key points of an ideal fusion policy.

Youth:  Students and University programs

Younger” here is a call for commitment to university programs and students.  Weisel makes a strong case for university funding and points out the steady erosion of university programs.  Note to the fusion community and the UFA (University Fusion Association):  You need to spell the issues affecting university programs out clearly and publicly.  What are the university needs?  What is the true preference here?  What policies are needed and what would it cost?  How can we better support students and create an environment that will attract young people to fusion?

Note to people who think about attracting young people to science.  We hear a lot of talk about how American students are falling behind in sciences.  It’s not that they lack for educational materials, it’s that they know there isn’t much of a future in studying science.  You need a serious commitment to science programs and funding for research to get them to see it as viable.  Otherwise they can make a lot more in finance and other useless things.  [citation required]

Note to everyone else, particularly alumni of certain universities:  University fusion programs cost a lot less than a typical fusion experimental device.  They’re the most vulnerable to cuts, but here’s where you can get a lot of value for your investment. 

Women in Plasma Physics

Women” - more women in plasma physics and fusion of course!  Develop policies and funding that create a more inviting climate for women.  Per this pink flyer I got at the “Women in Plasma Physics” luncheon at the APS DPP conference:

As of October 2010, DPP membership is 7% female (as opposed to 11% APS-wide).

Fresh approaches

Younger Women also refers to the need to break out of the patterns of the past.  The fusion endeavor is mired in an old institutionalized way of thinking.  It needs fresh energy, fresh outlooks.  The research focus is on two main approaches to fusion at the expense of other, less developed ideas.  Yet many in the fusion community think that the field requires some breakthroughs or “miracles” or, as Dmitri Ryutov put it, “pleasant physics surprises” that come from trying a lot of things. 

It takes more than physicists to make fusion happen

Younger Women can also refer to the everyone else - the people who show up to the party, the public, a pro-fusion culture.  There are many people who have a lot to contribute and we need to create the space for that to happen.  Per James Surowiecki,

The legendary organizational theorist James G. March, in fact, put it like this: “The development of knowledge may depend on maintaining an influx of the naive and the ignorant, and…competitive victory does not reliably go to the properly educated.”

The reason, March suggested, is that groups that are too much alike find it harder to keep learning, because each member is bringing less and less new information to the table. Homogeneous groups are great at doing what they do well, but they become progressively less able to investigate alternatives.

Or, as March has famously argued, they spend too much time exploiting and not enough time exploring.

Bringing new members into the organization, even if they’re less experienced and less capable, actually makes the group smarter simply because what little the new members do know is not redundant with what everyone else knows.

Faster Cars

This line has the greatest contrast with “All hands on deck for ITER.”

Cars (plural):  Multiple Experimental Device approach.

“Cars” refers to experimental devices.  Note the plural.  We need to consciously make this more than a 2 car race.  Bring more vehicles online.  Diversify the approaches.  The “All Hands on Deck for ITER” mantra is limited to one approach.  For team ITER, all hands should certainly be on deck.  However, we need to have more teams. 

Faster:  accelerate the pace, make it a priority.

“Faster”:  We want to accelerate the fusion program.  Speed things up.  How can that happen?  This is the tricky part of the policy.  We can’t be certain that diversification will speed up the quest for fusion.  We can’t even be certain that the two main approaches considered now, NIF and ITER will succeed.  As Ed Moses says, once they build it, “Either it will work, or we’ll learn some interesting physics.” 

To be honest, anything we do in fusion is a gamble.  Then again, anything in pharmaceuticals is a gamble, anything in film, getting married…  This never stopped people from taking risks.  Still, we need to make a good case for improved odds of rapid success with greater experimental device diversity.  Dmitri Ryutov’s soundbite regarding the need for “pleasant physics surprises” is a step in that direction. 

Car racing metaphor

“Faster cars” makes you think of racing, spectacle, adrenaline, sports and fun.  A fusion race is a great way to turn the obscure fusion endeavor into a beloved spectacle. 

The ITER-wagon driver is thinking “We don’t need spectacle!  Fusion has a credibility problem!  This makes it worse!  Everyone just needs to settle down and get all hands on deck for ITER.” 

It could turn out that “faster” is impossible.  Perhaps a 30, 40, 50 year program to get the ITER results is as good as it gets (assuming Ed Moses and NIF / LIFE run into “unpleasant physics surprises” and ITER doesn’t). 

That would make ITER v. everyone a classic tortoise and hare race

So why bother having the race at all?  Why not just let the tortoise walk?  Especially if the hare requires additional funding? 

Because in an unrigged story, a hare might win, and faster. 

And because even if they don’t, the hare has great PR value.  They get rid of “fusion fatigue”.  Nobody is interested in watching a single tortoise walk for hours.  The very idea of a 20-30 year program is mind numbing. 

But if it’s a race…and the possibility of an upset…and there’s some gambling on the side…I’m in!

If handled properly, a “race” schema could serve the fusion community very well in terms of increasing public interest, support and funding. 

There is another paradox here.  The “all hands on deck for ITER” mantra seeks consensus but masks discord.  A competitive, multi-device approach leverages the discord and can bring about better collaboration.  I’m reminded of the movie “61*” in which Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle are in a race to see who gets 61 homeruns first.  The media portrays them as bitter rivals while in fact they are good friends. 

More Money

More money.  More money.  More money.

Limited fusion funding creates a zero-sum, “down-select”, “ITER-or” environment - the popular “All hands on deck” tune.

Switching to “older whiskey” requires a solid fundraising component.  The first step is to figure out how much more money is required. 

It’s important to emphasize that not much more money is required.  The university programs and basic plasma physics and initial studies for different devices are not nearly as expensive as the full scale programs. 

An important policy tool here is an accurate dream fusion budget.  Even if it doesn’t get funded, we need a way to communicate what the ideal fusion program would look like. 

Once we are clear on what the needs are - the true fusion funding preferences - we have to go to work in marketing them.  If we want to diversify fusion experimental approaches, it is logical to likewise identify and diversify the sources of funding. 

The “Finance” section of this site will explore the options.  We’re thinking fusion bonds, a fusion investment fund, long tail funding, consumer products tie-ins.  We have not yet begun to tap fusion funding sources.  For example:

  • Are you an investor and thinking of funding fusion, but worried that it’s too long term and uncertain?  Well so are most pharmaceuticals but people drop as much in one year on pharmaceuticals as has been dropped on fusion research in the past 57 years. Either invest now, or work to develop instruments that would enable people to invest in fusion and also hedge their bets.
  • Are you an alumnus of a university that has a fusion program?  Your university doesn’t need another football stadium.  How about an endowment to fund fusion research and training for the next generation of students (“younger women”)?  Get your name on their fusion devices by giving them more money!
  • Are you a visitor to this website who has thought about helping out but aren’t sure how?  We could always use more money!

Band Practice

Switching from one song to another in mid drive is always a tough ploy. 

The switch to a diversified fusion program requires a coordinated, collaborative strategy. 

What we need here is to take key members of the fusion community on a retreat (to, say, a resort in Jackson Hole, Wyoming) where we come up with the dream budget and policies that would support a broad, diversified approach.  And then develop the strategy to make it happen.

We have some ideas about a useful program for this retreat.  (TBA) 

At this retreat we’ll make sure to have older whiskey…

Your involvement makes a big difference! Join online, or send checks payable to Focus Fusion Society, 128 Lincoln Blvd., Middlesex, NJ 08846.


For a more in depth discussion, start a thread in the forums.
There are (3) comments.

Brian H's avatar

Here’s an interesting question: if/when FF proves itself, and begins deployment thus setting off an energy boom, will governments and voters still be willing to fund ITER? 

Personally, I’d put the odds at about 30:70.

Would there be a need for funding from the government if people like myself with $100 to spare could pool that with others to invest in this? Probably not. The odd thing is, I can buy double and triple ETFs within my IRA account and that is considered OK despite their ridiculous volatility. Forget about rallying the crowd in the hope that they will in turn get the government to finally make a move and fund alternate fusion methods. The time lag will be too great. There needs to be more advertising for private investors with a longer than five year outlook. The amount of money raised so far is pathetically small. How much effort (money) has been put into fund raising? It takes money to raise money.

Rezwan's avatar

Excellent points, Zavod.  Those are the core issues that we’ll be exploring in the “Finance Fusion Campaign”.  There are many opportunities yet to explore.

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