Speeding ahead: the Lockheed stand at an aviation trade show in 2012. Photo: Getty
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Forever 20 years away: will we ever have a working nuclear fusion reactor?

Lockheed Martin has announced that it already has a small-scale fusion energy generator. In ten years’ time, it says, it will have developed a reactor large enough to power a city and small enough to sit on the back of a truck.

There is an old joke that physicists like to wheel out every now and then. It goes like this: fusion power is just 20 years away and it always will be. The gag has been doing the rounds again, because the US defence research contractor Lockheed Martin has spoiled the punchline. It announced that it already has a small-scale fusion energy generator. In ten years’ time, it says, it will have developed a reactor large enough to power a city and small enough to sit on the back of a truck.

Make of this claim what you will; there is little evidence to support it. Most experts dismiss it as improbable – after all, we’ve been trying to achieve this since the 1920s; why would Lockheed Martin suddenly have the answer? (Cynics respond by muttering about share prices.) Common sense suggests we should just shrug our shoulders and wait and see. In a decade, we’ll know whether the claim was valid. Common sense, though, can be a dangerous guide: a decade is far too long to keep such a disaster-prone dream alive.

Nuclear fusion reactors subject hydrogen atoms to extremely high temperatures and pressures, fusing them together into one particle. This releases enormous amounts of energy. It’s not beyond us to do this – we achieved such “ignition” decades ago. The problem is that the energy release is not easy to control and it is even harder to sustain.

Fusion creates a hot, writhing cloud of electrically charged gas called a plasma. This is, in effect, corrosive to the reactor that created it and has to be kept away from the walls of its container using magnetic fields. Any contact with the walls also dissipates the plasma’s power and ends the fusion reaction. Even if the plasma is successfully confined, the bursts of high-energy neutrons released during the fusion process eat into the container walls, weakening them significantly. Many experts say overcoming such technical difficulties is still decades, if not centuries, beyond our capabilities. Some say it will never be possible, hence the joke and the scepticism about Lockheed Martin’s announcement.

Some who have scrutinised the company’s recent patents say notions of future success seem all the more far-fetched on close examination: the design is similar to ones that were abandoned in the 1950s. But it seems no one is quite ready to dismiss the claims fully. As Steven Cowley, the director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, told the journal Science: “If it wasn’t Lockheed Martin, you’d say it was probably a bunch of crazies.”

But it is Lockheed Martin, a company with enough credibility to make the experts waver. And that’s the problem. A fusion reactor would wean us off fossil fuels and make most problems of climate change go away. This makes the announcement that one is coming in 2025 a perfect defence for inaction. In the nightmare scenario, a congressman or two argues that there’s no point in introducing unpopular climate change measures as carbon dioxide generation is about to become a thing of the past.

Two years ago, a team of 18 researchers published a study in the journal Nature showing that, with current trends, 2025 will be the tipping point for the planet’s biological systems. That’s the year when ecosystems and resources will have become too damaged to recover, triggering an extreme disruption of human civilisation.

At best, Lockheed Martin’s announcement heralds a reactor that is likely to be too little, too late, if nothing is done to ease environmental pressures in the intervening years. At worst, it could tip us into a decade of complacency that ensures our nightmares become reality. No boast is worth that. 

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 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.