Sunday, April 24, 2011

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

Fusion reactors.

Then ...

... Now

Still not quite there yet.


I recently paid a visit to the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, touring the National Spherical Torus Experiment. For a physics geek like me it was very cool.

After a short video and some introductory remarks, we were off to mission control.

Which recently had a computer upgrade.  

The place was empty, save for a couple of technicians, as the system is currently idle. Experiments resume in July and will continue for eight months. Then the system,  first used in 1999, will undergo a major upgrade (pending funding). It is targeted to be back online in 2014.

We then wandered through the situation room on our way to the reactor itself.

One wonders what kinds of "situations" there might be. Unlike fission reactors, the fuel for fusion is not radioactive. It is hydrogen. And the by product of fusion is helium. And the amount of fuel in use at anyone time, thanks to E=mc2 , is rather small, a couple minutes worth (fission plants have six months to a years worth of fuel). And if something goes wrong the plasma simply dissipates.

And those are two of the main appeals of this technology, ample fuel and no harmful waste. Think about that in terms of current events.

Along the way we passed equipment like this tritium monitor, "abandoned in place", old stuff no longer in use but not worth ripping out. Fossils of experiments past.

We walked down a long tunnel, donned hardhats, and pass through giant doors to the reactor room.

A sense of scale can be had by comparing the letters on the sign to the person in the image below.

That person is Jackie, a high school student from southern NJ who was visiting on her own. How cool is that? I along with everyone else, were here as part of a tour organized by a local astronomy club, (fusion powers stars). Jackie was here working on a science project for school. She had emailed the lab a couple of times and when she didn't hear back called them. Incredibly cool if you ask me. Maybe there is hope.

The brass pipes in the background aren't pipes. They are coaxial cables, like the one plugged into the back of your TV. Only much much larger (note the "Neutral Beam Injector" sign center right). And then realize that this is a "small" test reactor. 

It was too large to effectively photograph, to really give the sense of scale. There was just no vantage point to "get the big picture". So here are some smaller ones ...

Labels are exempt I guess.

I couldn't find the dilithium.

If the main reactor goes down we're covered.

Hmm ...

A window to the heart of the sun. 

(It's not obvious, but people can walk around in there. Yeah, this thing is big. Not as big as the sun though.)

We spent four hours at the lab and we had a fun time. A big thank you to the people at the lab who took time out of their day to show us around and answer our (sometimes silly) questions. It it a very cool place.


Unfortunately, it is not as cool a place as it could be.

Fusion research is an international endeavor. Alas, our "leaders" have decided that it is not a technology worth investing in. So the big reactors are being built elsewhere, France, Japan, Russia. Here in the US, we do things like give BP a $13 billion tax break. And call it an energy policy. 

A massive failure of leadership.

The OPEC oil embargo occurred in 1973. Thirty-eight years ago. And we've essentially done nothing to gain energy independence in all that time. Instead we spend trillions on wars over oil. 

A massive failure of leadership. 

Back at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, further layoffs are expected as the current regime enacts their draconian cutbacks.

A massive failure of leadership.

Heaven forbid we should invest in the future. 

A massive failure of leadership.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Walk in the Woods

It's early yet.

But it is coming.
An Eight Hour Tour ...

I went on a boat trip.

To see birds. And anything else that might swim by.

It started out good enough, as we spotted a pair of peregrine falcons nesting on the bridge spanning the harbor inlet.

Half a Pair

Bye-bye land.

(If you look real closely, you can see my high school!)

The target birds were alcids: razorbills, murres, dovekies, puffins and the like. The penguins of the north.

Not an Alcid

And while we saw several hundred razorbills, most were at a distance.

Somebody claimed to see a common murre.

I didn't.

And I got no razorbill photos.


But we did see gulls!

Still not Alcids

Lots of gulls.

Eight different species. (One per hour!) Like the young glaucous of my previous post. 


The chumming helped.

We also saw plenty of scoter. Thousands of surf and black, and some white winged too. But like those in this image, they flew as the boat approached. Giving Crossley like views.

Find Them All!

And note the cool mirage ships in the distance.

Other mirages included a whale and some dolphin that others claimed to see.

Hidden behind that common murre no doubt.

The other bird we got good looks at are were northern gannet.

Angry Bird?

Gannets are the birds gulls wannabe.

Torpedos with wings, they dive bomb fish. Very cool to watch.

As you can see the sky was clear and blue. It was a sunny but cold day. I had been worried about rough seas and seasickness, but for the most part it was calm. And no one joined in the chumming.

Braving the Elements

It did get a bit rougher on the way in. Forcing us to abandon the bow, as the waves came crashing over.

While we didn't see the birds I wanted to see and I missed the mammals, it was a good day, spent with new friends and old, most of which I didn't expect to see. 

And we got to see gulls (pun!).

Still no Alcids

Saturday, April 2, 2011

An Acquired Taste

And truthfully, one I've not yet fully acquired.

But when life gives you lemons ...

... you take gull photos!

Like this very cooperative first cycle glaucous gull.

Gull identification is one of the more difficult birding challenges, and one I've not yet mastered. Often coming down to foot color, bill color, and subtle feather size and color differences.

Most gulls take three or four years to reach adulthood, with plumage changes each year. There are twenty-seven species of gulls found in North America, many with similar appearances. And a number of them interbreed, upping the degree of difficulty.

Do the math, 27 * 3 = 81 different looks. Not counting hybrids and birds undergoing plumage changes. And then there are the plumage differences between breeding and non-breeding birds.

And it doesn't help that one of the best places to master the craft of gull identification is the local landfill.

I don't know that I would have correctly id'd this bird in the field. Most likely I'd have compared my notes and photos to my field guides, made a guess, and then asked my birding friends if I got it right. So it was nice to have experts along to identify them for me.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Physics Nerd Alert!

Sign at the gift shop at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab.