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Here comes the sun

A giant nuclear fusion reactor could solve the world’s energy problems – but only if it doesn’t melt

For now, it is a hideous sight. In Cadarache, 60 kilometres north of Marseilles, workers have cleared over 40 hectares of wooded land and moved more than two million cubic metres of soil. However, this scar on the Provençal landscape has been earmarked for greatness. It is where a multinational team of scientists is attempting to build earth's second sun.

As projects go, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) could hardly be more ambitious. Its aim is to show that we can control nuclear fusion reactions. This is the same process as generates energy in stars and could, in theory, release up to four million times more power than burning fossil fuels. If Iter works, we'll have solved our energy problems.

But ifs do not come much bigger than that. We do not yet know if it is even possible to build the machine. "Fusion is a big bet - it's not a dead cert," says Steven Cowley, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, the hub of UK fusion research. The stake for that bet is set at €10bn (£9bn), but that figure is double the original estimate for the project and may rise further; Iter's council was recently presented with just the latest in a series of revised budgets and schedules. Whatever it eventually costs, we will not find out whether the gamble has paid off until 2026, the earliest date for the project's completion.

All this uncertainty and delayed gratification, not helped by the price tag, has generated heat of its own. Iter's critics, who include prominent scientists and Greenpeace International, have argued that the money would be better spent on pressing challenges such as finding ways to increase near-term energy production.

However, the fusion scientists are keen to point out that they are being responsible. It is no use surviving the near term only to find we are faced with a huge energy debt, they argue. World consumption is on course almost to double by 2030. Solar energy and nuclear fission might be more immediately available, but both have their limits. Nuclear fusion's main fuel is derived from seawater, and there are no long-term nuclear waste products. Nothing, they say, would fill the energy gap like this.

Bombard with microwaves

That is what Iter's members - Russia, the EU, Japan, China, South Korea, the US and India - are hoping their 23,000-tonne monster will prove. The jaw-dropping size of Iter is necessary because making commercially viable electricity from fusion depends on economies of scale. Previous successes in smaller reactors have managed to break even, producing as much energy as they consume. But the Cadarache reactor should, according to its designers, give out ten times more power than it takes in.

Operating at 150 million degrees Celsius, ten times hotter than the core of the sun, Iter is certainly going to take in a lot of power. Surprisingly, this kind of temperature is not too hard to achieve. The fuel for Iter is two heavy isotopes of hydrogen called deuterium and tritium. Bombard them with microwaves, magnetic fields and other particles, and they will get hot enough to fuse, releasing energy.

The hard bit comes with the maelstrom created inside the reactor. The high temperature creates a "plasma", a gas of charged particles. Plasma is an engineer's worst nightmare. For a start, it cannot be allowed to touch the reactor's walls; if it does, they will melt, and the whole thing will have to be rebuilt.

The plasma can be held away from the walls using immensely strong magnetic fields, but only - so far - for short periods. This is because the plasma tends to slip around in its magnetic cage, forming areas of high density that can burst through. Even if Iter engineers manage to hold it stable for ten minutes at a time, which is as much as they hope to achieve, the plasma will still shoot out neutrons that can destroy the walls.

This is the frontier where Iter succeeds or fails, Cowley believes. "We're pretty sure we can get out ten times the energy we put in," he says. "But if we have to replace the wall every year, that's going to be a very expensive way to produce electricity."

Once all the engineering problems are overcome, the plant will be able to produce only 500 megawatts of power, equivalent to a single coal-fired power station. Members will then have to build their own fusion reactors using the know-how gained at Iter. Payback will come, so the rationale goes, through these states' privileged position in the trillion-dollar, post-fossil-fuel, global energy market.

It's not an argument that worked for Canada, which pulled out of the fusion dream in 2003. The US also wavered, though it has now committed to paying 9 per cent of the cost. The EU is putting in the largest share, taking responsibility for just under half of the project. Thanks to the strange arithmetic of fusion, however, EU taxpayers may end up paying significantly more than half of the money.

Creative accounting

The funding of Iter is a notoriously slippery subject. Roughly 90 per cent of the contributions are due "in kind" - states will contract firms to manufacture equipment for a cost that they do not have to declare to the other states. Even more confusing is that each of Iter's components has been designated as worth a certain number of "Iter accounting units". Members can then choose which components they commission firms in their countries to design and build. This will affect the balance of expenditure; the cost of producing a particular magnet is likely to be far less in China than in Germany, for instance.

Then there is the complexity of the various components. The UK has chosen to build superconducting magnets and the main container vessel for the plasma. These, it turns out, will cost much more to design and build than initial estimates suggested. Cowley maintains this is a good thing: the money will go to UK in­dustries and provide them with engineering challenges that will have their own spin-off benefits, he says.

“We will never really know how much some countries spent," admits Neil Calder, Iter's spokesman. This lack of clarity about the cost may prove to be the project's Achilles heel.

In May, the journal Nature declared it "deeply unfair" to the taxpayers paying for the project and called for "an honest public debate". Science also weighed in, suggesting that fusion's problems could well be intractable. Fusion, said one commentator in the journal, is "the science of wishful thinking".

There is no sign of second thoughts from any of the members, however. According to Sébas­tien Balibar, a director at France's National Centre for Scientific Research, members stand to gain nothing by halting the project. "Now that Iter has been decided and is under construction, it would be better that it produces useful results," he says.

Michael Brooks is a consultant for New Scientist and the author of "13 Things that Don't Make Sense: the Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time" (Profile Books, £12.99)


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Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Left Hanging

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood