Book Preview: The Boy Who Played with Fusion


This June, Harcourt releases The Boy Who Played with Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting, and How to Make a Star. Written by journalist Tom Clynes, the book got its start as a 2012 Popular Science story of the same name. I've been reading an early galley and love the way Clynes weaves tales of a precocious youngster, his wise parents, and his baffled teachers. It's an inside look at raising a typical, angsty teen, except one who gives Ted talks on the weekends and hangs with world-class physicists.

Taylor hadn't realized that his biggest challenge, by far, would be to create a workable vacuum. He needed enough negative pressure to create an almost empty space for his subatomic particles to travel. If any gas or air molecules were left inside the tube, the high-energy particles would collide with them and lose energy. "Imagine a freeway in Los Angeles and you want to go 100 miles an hour," Taylor explains. "If you try that at rush hour you're going to hit other cars. But in the middle of the night it's wide open and you can go fast."

To pump out the tube, Taylor used a refrigerator compressor and wired it to run backward. Then, Taylor loaded the deuterium gas he'd generated. "I was so excited," he says. "Me and Tom got the Van de Graaff up to 200,000 volts, and with the Model-T arc we tried to get plasma going."

But even though they used higher-tech fasteners than Lawrence did in the 1930s, they had trouble creating enough vacuum to get a sustained plasma field, and a clear enough path to accelerate particles to any measurable degree. They tweaked the fasteners and tried all sorts of sealant—silicon rubber, epoxy, "and a few other things," says Taylor. "We were using techniques from the sixties and seventies, and we modernized them, but with our expertise and materials we could only go so far. Most of it worked. But not the big picture."