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Of burst bladders and tokamak stellerators

The tokamak stellerator is going to save humanity!

In essence, this was the conclusion of a highly enjoyable lecture by Donald Kurtz, the first of a series of three lectures at the UCT Summer School, entitled The Stars are Ours (named after a novel by Andre Norton, who I’d previously mistakenly assumed to be a man).

The lecture was a romp through astronomical history, starting in a dark room with the death of Copernicus, who placed the sun at the centre of the solar system, moving on to his successor Tycho Brahe, who as well as being a master of astronomical observations was also a despot who kept a pet dwarf, chained families in his dungeon, lost his nose in a duel and is suspected to have died of a burst bladder after being unwilling to breach etiquette and leave a banquet early to relieve himself.

The rather more sober Johannes Kepler followed, codifier of the laws of planetary motion, Galileo, Newton, Jeremiah Horrocks, the journeys of Captain Cook (being able to triangulate observations from different points on the globe was important in accurately measuring distance to the various astronomical bodies), before finally leaping into quantum physics, and intriguingly, how quantum physics helped explain how nuclear fusion powers the sun.

All of which leads back to the tokamak stellerator, which will replicate the power of the sun to generate immense amounts of energy. Engineers will be relieved to learn that it’s merely an engineering problem now, as the physics has been solved. Unfortunately, the engineers are lagging, as no current tokamak stellerators produce more energy than they consume in cooling, but, according to Kurtz, a breakthrough is imminent, perhaps even this century!

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