Well…you’re getting closer people. Here’s another one I found today. Again, I apologize for taking up this much space but I thought you’de want to see this.
A machine called Z
Under a ring of water in a sealed chamber in the middle of the New Mexico desert lies the heart of a machine that could change the world
Sunday December 31, 2000
It is never night inside the Machine. Even after the sun has set on the mesa and Jimmy Potter and the frogmen and the men in white jumpsuits and the men in blue jumpsuits have showered, packed up, and gone home; even as yawning, befuddled scientists – with names like Jim Bailey and Mark Derzon and Melissa Douglas – sit in offices in a nearby building, trapped by their own reflections and in the blackened windows; and even as this oesophageal dark falls over coyote and jackrabbit and moves everything towards sleep and dreams, towards the deepest centre of the night, the Machine is awake.
Its 36 Marx generators are set in a ring like a metallic Stonehenge. The 20 Rexolite disks of the vacuum chamber look like flying saucers. Its vast, concentric pool of five-weight oil and deionized water seems bottomless – real oil and real water, in half-million-gallon tanks that sit one inside the other like a wheel within a wheel. Even now, there are depths in the Machine, invisible worlds revealing themselves, the secret body of the universe floating up. Deuterium, tritium, helium.
It begins with the flip of a cyber switch in the control room at the north end of the hanger. Before a bank of computer screens, a man clicks a mouse, and then electricity, quietly sucked off the municipal power grid in Albuquerque, floods into the outer ring of Marx generators. Which is when the Machine takes control. A siren sounds, red lights flash, doors automatically lock. The frogmen and the white and blue jumpsuits clamber over the high bay, down metal steps, and retreat to a copper-coated room behind a foot of cement.
Another switch is flipped, another mouse clicked. To the piercing sound of an alarm, a countdown in the Marx generators ensues, or rather a count up, in kilovolts, comes in a monotone, almost hollow voice beneath the frantic alarm. The man in the control room on a tinny loudspeaker, the Machine speaking through the human.
At 90, the floodgates open: a pulse of electricity surges out of the Marx generators toward an inside ring of giant capacitors and then through a series of gas switches. The current is compressed by the Machine into a wild whitewater of electricity that charges toward the vacuum chamber at a speed of 60 million feet per second. On its way, it passes through painted sharks’ mouths, drawn there by the men in white and blue jumpsuits in the way that fighter pilots sometimes draw on their warplanes to show their prowess – or hide their misgivings. The electricity pours past the sharks’ mouths, is redirected downward, along the Z axis, into the vacuum chamber, blitzing and bombarding from all sides a three-dimensional target in a gold-plated can, a delicately strung array of tungsten wires the size of a spool of thread, hanging in black space like a tiny chandelier.
Driven so furiously in the Machine, and then storming the array, the pulse of electricity – enough juice now to light up America like a birthday cake – instantly vapourises the tungsten wire into plasma, a superheated ion gas. The ions hover and dance along the invisible circumference once described by the array, while a relentless magnetic field keeps pressing on them, shoving them from behind. Thrusting and squeezing and ramming until the ions can no longer resist, the centre cannot hold, and in that hot nanosecond – Boom ! Everything becomes one.
This is not a gentle conjunction but a Pandora’s box suddenly ripped open by nuclear passion, an orgy of ions. Boom ! Lightning fills the Machine, veins out over the surface of the water. Temperatures flare to those inside the sun. The earth rocks once again. And in few billionths of a second, 290 terawatts – 80 times the power generated on earth at any given time – roar to life inside the Machine.
Watching it through a Plexiglas window, you might as well be watching the beginning of the universe. Or the end of it. Contained in that single flash of white light, when the Machine holds the heat and the power of the sun, when the room fills with lightning, there is everything we know – and everything we may become. The 21st century. A world covered by rooms of little suns, generating intense energy and, with it, the possibilities of time travel and galaxy hopping. Peace among nations. Or the end of time as we know it, a hole ripped in the universe by the Machine, something many doomsayers predict, and the earth sucked into oblivion. Our downfall or salvation. A fusion machine they call Z.
The magic bean; the Holy Grail: fusion. The idea is to take two isotopes of the hydrogen atom – deuterium and tritium – and mash them together with a little energy, which in turn releases enormous amounts of energy in the form of a single neutron. Contrarily, fission, the method widely employed by today’s nuclear reactors, splits heavy uranium and plutonium atoms, creating lots of energy but also tons of dangerous and everlasting radioactive waste. Fusion offers a clean source, borne out of the material of roughly a handful of water and a handful of earth, with its only by-product being an easily disposable helium-4 nucleus.
What would fusion mean? Endless, cheap energy. Amazing Star Trek , space-travel possibilities. Fame, fortune, and undoubtedly a Nobel or two for the lucky scientists. For the better part of five decades, the race has two separate approaches: magnetic confinement and inertial confinement. Most researchers – those from Japan, Russia, Europe and America – focus on the former: big accelerators called stellarators, spheromaks, and tokamaks (a machine designed partly by Andrei Sakharov) use huge magnets to contain and compress hydrogen isotopes that hover in a kind of reddish-blue plasma inside the huge torus-shaped tubes until implosion.
On the other hand, the idea behind inertial confinement is that tiny fuel pellets of deuterium and tritium are bombarded by lasers or X-rays. In the case of the Z Machine, the explosion that occurs when ions are released by the vapourised wire array, and then when ions are pinched together, creates a huge X-ray pulse, one that scientists hope can be used to heat the tiny pellets and, in turn, create a small thermonuclear explosion. As it is, fusion has never been achieved for an extended time outside the explosion of a hydrogen bomb.
The first time scientists attempted to shoot an early incarnation of the Z machine, in June 1980, there was bravado and false bravado and downright fear. At Sandia National Laboratories on Kirtland Air Force Base, in the same New Mexican high-desert landscape of America’s greatest, most frightening nuclear discoveries, they’d been working on the Machine for four years. Yet there were still unknown variables, a scientist’s nightmare. First, it was so much bigger and more powerful than any of its predecessors. What if the Marx generators blew up before it could be shot? What if residual X-ray radiation contaminated people in the area? Or a fire destroyed the complex? And what if everything worked perfectly and they got a huge energy release that blew up Albuquerque itself? It was a scenario that had been considered at the highest level. As had something worse: what if people later wished that it had been only Albuquerque that blew up?
The shot – Sandia shorthand for the firing of the Machine – was scheduled for a Friday night. But then the machine blew a fitting. The technical crew – the frogmen, as well as the men in white and blue jumpsuits – worked feverishly, and by Saturday noon the Machine was ready again. ‘No one knew what to expect,’ remembers Gerry Yonas, 58, an engineer and physicist and one of the founding fathers of the Z Machine. They took all necessary precautions, charged the Marx generators, and crossed their fingers. A switch was flipped, electricity pulsated into the Machine, ripped through the switches, stormed on to the wires. There was a wicked jolt, and… silence. Sweet, beautiful silence. Everyone was still on earth; everything seemed to work. The feeling was surreal. ‘I felt the ground shake,’ says Yonas, grinning at the memory, ‘and everybody said: “Let’s do it again!” Nobody wanted to go home. I had to kick them out. There was nowhere else in the world to be. This was the beginning.’
The scientists, at that time a group of 20 or so men, threw high fives and drank beer. Pure, silly jubilation. Only later, photographs of what actually had occurred inside the Machine made them gasp: huge dragon snorts of fire filled the hangar. Apparently, plumes of oil had sprayed skyward in the instant of explosion, flamed, and then flamed out before the men returned inside the Machine. They had nearly blown themselves up. By the grace of some benevolent god, or the Machine itself, they were allowed to return to work on Monday morning, giddy limbs intact.
Over the next 15 years, the Z Machine gradually improved its output, packing an astonishing wallop – 20 trillion watts’ worth of electrical output, as compared with the mea gre 100,000 amps of the first machine – but it wasn’t enough. Scientists and theoreticians estimated that for high-yield fusion to be achieved inside the Machine, it would need to generate something over 1,000 trillion watts. A factor of at least 50 of Z’s output.
Which is when the men in suits and ties tried to kill the Machine. It was a dinosaur, they argued, no longer useful. They felt Z-pinch technology could not yield the mother lode. By 1995, even Yonas, who was about to become a grandfather, was acutely feeling the passage of time. He sadly had to admit that maybe he should sacrifice Z and all the optimism that had driven the project. Perhaps achieving high-yield fusion, something scientists compare to the invention of the lightbulb for its potential to change the world, did indeed belong to the other fusion machines, the stellarators and spheromaks and tokamaks. To the Russians or the Japanese or the British or the confederate nerds at Princeton or Lawrence Livermore or Oak Ridge. And maybe Sandia National Laboratories – over time, a place known more for its secretive mystique, its downright weird nefariousness, dating to the cloak-and-dagger days of Little Boy and Fat Man – would have to sit on the sidelines while someone else gave the world perhaps its greatest legacy.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the chop shop. Maybe it was 11th-hour desperation, or some invisible bolt of providence visited on a few overworked scientists, a couple of whom lit on the simple idea of stringing the wire array, the spool-sized target at the centre of the Machine, with double, then triple, the tungsten wire. All of a sudden – Boom ! Forty trillion watts! No one believed it. They reconfigured the Machine, boosting its X-ray production. Then someone, Melissa Douglas, thought to stack the arrays. Boom ! Two hundred trillion watts in a single pulse! Short of a nuclear blast, it was the most energy ever released on earth, and suddenly, in 1998, after five decades of chasing the illusion of high-yield fusion, of regarding it as some far-off Atlantis or dark galaxy’s edge, the Z Machine was a third of the way there.
In science, if you do something once that’s never been done before, it’s considered a mistake. Do it twice, and it’s simply a mirage. But the third time it becomes the truth. With Z’s new, seemingly impossible results came the first flickering sign that some deep, unknowable power resided in the Machine. And so today, the Z Machine is considered one of the world’s best hopes for achieving fusion. ‘We may not understand how we get these huge pulses of power, the meaning may still elude us,’ says Yonas. ‘But it’s still a fact.’
One that Yonas himself, at first, had a hard time grasping. After he was handed the results, he remembers squinting at them, and sitting back at his desk as if blown by a solar wind. ‘My God,’ he said in a small voice. ‘This could work. This could really work.’
Listen to the Z scientists, to their best idea (‘The use of stark-shifted emissions to measure electric-field fluctuations and acceleration gaps’), and their dream (‘To remedy plasmic instability and create higher temp- eratures’), and you enter a kind of friend country that becomes an Andean prison from which it gets harder and harder to escape. The scientists admit that, at moments, their whole selves are inseparable from the Machine, that the pull of the Machine is so great that re-entering normal life can be nearly impossible.
Jim Bailey, a handsome, soft-spoken, loafer-wearing plasma physicist whose conversation is peppered with references to spectroscopy and ‘the visible regime’, says sometimes it’s even hard to go to a neighbour’s barbecue – can’t make small talk, can’t communicate what you do – let alone talk to your wife. Mark Derzon, a boyish, bearded nuclear physicist, says he works a system with his wife: when he walks through the door at the end of a day, he says green light (‘Yes, everything is fine, I’m ready for the kids’); yellow light (‘Give me 15 to decompress’); or red light (‘I need time’). Melissa Douglas says that there’s no line drawn at all between the Machine and her private life – that the Machine, her place inside of the Machine, studying something called Rayleigh-Taylor instabilities, is her private life. And now, at the age of 36, she’s watched her friends get married, have families, settle, and on occasion she’s wondered to herself: ‘what am I doing? Can we really make fusion work?’
Since the 1950s, the US government has invested nearly $15bn to find out, always with the promise that fusion is just around the corner – two, three, five years away – and, with it, a fusion revolution that would hurtle us to the centre of the earth, the deepest trenches of the ocean, and the farthest reaches of space. A revolution that would morph the Third World into the First World until we are simply One World.
After all, how many wars have been fought over oil? And then, with oil reserves expected to reach full depletion by 2050, how many more will be? Remove oil as a vital component of our speed-driven, chip-fitted age and, sure, people would find things to brawl over, but energy wouldn’t be one of them.
And with limitless, cheap energy, the development of poorer nations wouldn’t be one of them, either.
And with development, the have-nots and pariahs of the world would theoretically join the haves, and so food and housing and education wouldn’t be one of them.
And with a higher standard of living would come a new freedom for humanity. For at its heart, fusion, as a Utopian ideal, has always symbolised freedom; freedom from the mistakes and waste of our past, the Hanford Reservations and the Savannah River Sites – those vast, spooky, radiating underground storage facilities chambered with containers of plutonium and iodine waste, on top of which America is built. Though left unsaid, the race for fusion has always been about democracy or a democratic alternative.
And yet one of the biggest threats to fusion comes from the same group of people responsible for the Hanford Reservations and the Savannah River Sites: the US Government. Recently, Congress and various federal agencies have become disenchanted by the fusion dream. Critics have lambasted it as a waste of time and money. If we haven’t achieved it in the last 45 years, they argue, we never will. The US has dropped out of a proposed $10bn international fusion project called ITER, leaving the facility in doubt of completion. Meanwhile, the government has spent $3bn, with as much as an additional $43bn to come, on developing Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a vast nuclear-waste site – despite well-documented problems – and continues its commitment to fission reactors despite the fact that radioactive waste can be lethal up to 600 millennia after burial. Leaders in fusion field, like the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, have mothballed their big machines, laid off staff, and now are fighting simply for their own survival.
‘You have to find a way to justify doing something that you may never see accomplished in your lifetime,’ says Jim Bailey, who has a penchant for reading Hume. ‘I mean, instead I could be working for a cancer cure, with at least a greater hope of finding one. But I’m OK with this. I’ve made my peace with it. Fusion will be the greatest scientific achievement of our time.’
Yonas, with the Super Bowl confidence of Joe Namath, predicts that usable high-yield fusion will be made available to the American public by an accelerator called X-1, a generation or two beyond Z, within three decades – maybe sooner. Mark Derzon, a member of what’s called the Advanced Concepts Group at Z, has designed what would be the first practical Z-pinch reactor – ‘A zero-miracle power plant,’ he cheerfully proclaims, and believes that the Z technology is rougher and tougher, able to sustain more of the constant rock and roll of such a plant, than are the sensitive lasers and vacuums necessary for magnetic confinement. But optimism usually carries the day only past lunch; the request to draw up preliminary plans for X-1, with its price tag of up to $1bn dollars, is likely to be approved by the Department of Energy.
‘Every day, it’s a leap of faith,’ says Neal Singer, a science writer at Sandia. ‘Adding wires to the array – where did that idea come from? From the outside it makes no sense. It’s incredibly complex and difficult to string tungsten wires 1/10th the diameter of a piece of hair and space them perfectly. And they did it and got tremendous results. Then they added more and more, spaced them a little differently and now we’re a third of the way there. It takes these little steps, this day-by-day thinking. Hour after hour. Ten, 12, 14 hours a day. The constant question is, Can you just make a little change to influence the result?’
Thus the world inside the Machine is driven down to its smallest, most maddening detail. For in the end, fusion – its possibility and reality, its attainment and capture – comes out of this finely tuned call-and-response with the universe itself, the channelling of some great unknown, copulating force that calls for the perfect alignment of human and Machine. That is, the human culture surrounding the Machine attempts to mimic the Machine itself , which is trying to mimic the universe. The mannerisms of the Machine become the mannerisms of its minions – people rage and tyrannise, overheat, relent, synergise, procreate, vanish, and recur. One idea seems brilliant and fails, while another may start as a quail but then, compressed by other ideas – electrons stripping off, ions colliding – transforms into something sharp and fast, something agitatingly, beautifully right. And then, of course, it is shot into the Machine to see if it is.
Still there is Melissa Douglas’s nagging doubt, which is the nagging doubt of everyone here. On certain days, it is possible to believe that you are merely trapped in the rubble of some cosmic joke with no punch line, that Godot is eating chilli dogs somewhere and won’t be able to make it. After all, Jim Bailey’s lab books are full of 13 years’ worth of jottings; Mark Derzon has pulled countless all-nighters in the name of what may or may not be the reactor of the future; Melissa Douglas has spent entire months of her life obsessing over a single equation, the pallor of her face reflecting only pale computer light – all of this thought and activity and faith belying the possibility that their efforts might be for nothing. And yet as much as the race for fusion is a race against the Russians at Triniti labs, or the Germans at FZK labs, or other American scientists at Lawrence Livermore, it’s also literally a race against the ticking internal clocks of each scientist who entertains the question: will I live to see it?
‘History forgets the individual,’ says Mark Derzon pensively, surrounded by no fewer than 30 photographs of his young daughters. ‘One day Plato will be forgotten. Ultimately, the name you make for yourself is not the important thing. It’s what you did, what you stood up for, what you acted on. Did you try to make the world a better place? In order to do it, the world needs fusion. I just happen to think that Z is the best way to get there. And we’re going to have one serious pizza party around here if it is.’
Jimmy Potter stands inside the Machine, glaring down into the half-million-gallon pool of water at the submerged refrigerator-sized capacitors where, he suspects, there may be a broken, bubbling gas switch. Potter, a Texan, is the keeper of the Beast, the man who oversees the whole shebang for today’s shot. ‘Are those bubbles down there?’ he asks out loud, vexed. ‘We already sent the divers in. I sure hope not.’
If Potter is driven by perfection, then he is merely a reflection of the culture at Sandia National Laboratories. And if the quest for fusion is intensely competitive, Moonily quixotic, and at times downright nasty, then Sandia mirrors, among its myriad projects, many of those same contradictory characteristics. Top secret or otherwise, spread over the dusty 27-square-mile patch of Kirtland Airforce Base, the projects include the training of honeybees to detect land mines, the invention of a foam that kills anthrax, the making of a synthetic sludge, and the perfecting of various micromachines, some so small as to be undetectable by the human eye, which might be used to lock down nuclear weapons. Sandia is the home to Teraflops, the fastest computer in the world, as well as the birthplace of moly-99, a radioactive substance widely used in medical procedures. On the east of the base, behind three rows of concertina wire, is a cluster of foothills rumoured to be now-empty nuclear silos. They seem to stand as a reminder of how closely the isotopes of Thanatos and Eros can be held in the same idea, for it to be a real idea, a saving idea, both have to be there, threatening to undo us and remake us at once. To obliterate and immortalise.
Potter couldn’t care about all that. ‘My job is to work with the personalities here,’ he says, now pacing the high bay, twitching with pent-up energy. He slips behind a pig (a radiation shield), and checks a silver box that houses a cryogenic pump. He monitors the tech crew, confers with the lead scientist on the shot, keeps everything running on time. ‘You’ve got your top of the Ivy League class,’ he continues. ‘You’ve got prima donnas with huge egos. And you’ve got technicians who at least graduated high school. Nobody can operate without the other. The first thing that happens with two strong personalities is clash. It’s my job to go to one and bring him up and maybe bring the other one down and then bring them together.’
Of course, there are days when everything feels charged with Shakespearean plots and counterplots, days when tension fills up around the Machine. All of it is caused by the Machine, which rarely exists, of course, in its aluminum-and-Rexolite grandeur, oblivious. There is head-butting between the young comers kicking with ideas and the upper echelon of Z veterans, who ultimately hold the power here. There are Iagos trying to ice someone else’s idea in order to promote their own. (The lab rewards the best with bonuses.)
‘I’ve become a lot more aggressive,’ says Melissa Douglas, one of only three women among the 60 full-time scientists who work on Z. ‘You have to really stand your ground. It was very hard for me to do that at first.’ In four years on the project, she remembers her worst day as the one when she delivered a seminar and a colleague heckled her mercilessly. Why? Was she that stupid? Did her PhD in plasma physics and her postdoc at Los Alamos make her that inept? So she took her weakness, her insecurity, her lack, and shot it into the Machine, and it came back as power, 290 terawatts’ worth.
As have others. Marriage is shot in. Love is shot in. Innocence and experience and numbers are shot in, and come back as something almost holy.
While many of these scientists consider themselves agnostic, they are quick to admit that they still find themselves in thrall to the unknown, to the force that pulses through the Machine. ‘In a deep sense, I would say that my greatest satisfaction here comes from the act of creation,’ says Jim Bailey. ‘Because what we’re trying to do is create knowledge that didn’t exist before. Whether that brings us closer to God or not, I don’t know. It brings us closer to an understanding of the universe, and if you want to think of God in those terms, then I suppose you could define it that way.’
Melissa Douglas describes the charge of joy she gets from a perfect photograph of a Rayleigh-Taylor instability taken inside the vacuum chamber by a pinhole camera at the moment of the wire array’s implosion. ‘A beautiful picture!’ she says, holding up a snapshot that looks more like a Rorschach test – kind of blobby with spikes and valleys. ‘It sounds ridiculous, but when I first saw it I jumped and hopped around the room. Ecstatic. Just amazing. Being around this machine, you can’t help but feel awe. The universe is mathematical and, you know, God is a mathematician.’
And Jimmy Potter – Jimmy Potter is clearing the high bay as sirens sound for all personnel to vacate the Machine and retreat to the control room. Today’s shot will attempt to find a way to bombard the wire array uniformly with electricity, so that each last kilovolt of energy can be accelerated into the Machine and come back as more. ‘I mean, how do you explain all this to someone outside of this place?’ he says, gesturing toward the Machine. ‘We don’t make a product that can be sold. You can’t really see what’s going on on in that vacuum chamber. I usually just tell people I work with X-rays. That we’ve got a big machine doing big things, and one day we’re gonna change your life.’
Dawn inside the Machine, and it’s silent. The frogmen and the men in white and blue jumpsuits are arriving, shaking off their sleep, downing coffee. Jimmy Potter got the shot last night, downloaded the diagnostics, sent everyone home saying they’d take apart the Machine today, and then drove the half hour to his house, over the mesa and the beautiful landscape, to his wife and kids, trying to forget this place for a few hours. At 5.30am, he was back, rallying the crew, which now has sluggishly begun its work, drilling and hammering at the vacuum chamber.
The people of Z admit there’s a new inten sity, especially given the Machine’s recent exponential gains. There’s something to prove – and they need to prove it fast. Plans to win funds to build a cheaper, intermediary machine named ZX, one that will lead to X-1, are the stuff of new worry and hope. And, like life on the edge of any new frontier, there is still the possibility of danger.
But there are dreamy days here as well. There are times when some Z scientists find it hard not to let there minds wander, to entertain versions of fusion-propelled rockets arcing the local solar systems, of fuel stations on the moon or Io or Pluto, wherever you can pick up a little lithium and water. And there are others who imagine it as the Peace and Love Machine, who’ve put their trust and idealism for the best possible world in Z. And to get Peace and Love from the Machine, they have to shoot in their souls, holding nothing back.
Now the crane groans over its huge tracks above the Machine, preparing to lift off the 8,000lb crown of the vacuum chamber. Last evening, the Machine inhaled the sun, this room filled with lightning, and then everything exploded. Now, when the crown is unbolted, hitched to a hook, and lifted away by the crane, a group of men tentatively peer down into the Machine, goggle-eyed, perhaps expecting to find some traces of gold dust or, more absurdly, a pile of confetti – or, by some miracle of the universe, maybe a fully formed angel, sleeping with its white wings pleached and sooty, its legs twisted under its body, both comical and impossible.
So the men look and look, down into the centre of Z, the womb of the Machine, for some message there sent back from the invisible world. But it is just a well of black space – plasma and atoms unable to hold the weight of their gaze, the chill of their wonder.