Manfred von HellermannPhysicist
Essentially, I engage in spectroscopy in nuclear fusion. The exploration and scientific research on nuclear fusion began in the late 1950s. The controlled nuclear fusion was once one viable alternative energy source, but now it has become understood as the only option. The motivation has shifted significantly. »The fast track to nuclear fusion« has recently been formulated by Sir David King, the scientific advisor to Tony Blair: In order to prevent irreversible climate change, we need nuclear fusion not later than 2050/60.
For four years I have been working as an external scientific advisor to the project ITER 1, the international nuclear fusion project which is being built in France. And in a sense, one can say that nuclear fusion has brought the whole world together for the first time since the Tower of Babel. And it is moving ahead bit by bit now. It is assumed that it is feasible, technically speaking, and that it will be an important intermediary step towards a model »demo« reactor, and only then will an actual commercial power reactor be built. Energy – this is our natural potential. We have to consider the earth’s natural energy reserves such as water, which is a basis of nuclear fusion. What can you do with that energy, can one increase the efficiency? How much energy do we need to earn one Euro? There is a wonderful global correlation between GDP and energy consumption: indeed the whole world, from China to the United States, is on a perfect straight line, the dependent variable is the gross national product (money) and the independent variable is the energy. That means, starting from the energy that the earth provides for us, one wonders: how can we use it to earn money as efficiently as possible?
Moreover, I see an important connection between art and science: a good physicist or a good scientist, when representing themselves, should possess artistic skills. To be a good physicist, you also have to be an artist. You have to have the courage to exaggerate things in order to make them clear. Or to put it dif-ferently: something that has always fascinated me is that a good artist must be able to separate himself or herself from the object under observation, must have his or her own point of view as an artist. For a good scientist this is also a necessary skill. You have to be able to put yourself in the background, even to laugh at yourself. Working in a team also means that you exchange thoughts with each other as much as possible, it means laying yourself bare in order to discuss new ideas and exchanging thoughts.
On the subject of nuclear fusion I can say without exaggeration that this project has to be continued. Put more provocatively: how can we provide a country such as ours with energy? Even with alternative energy sources it won’t be feasible until 2050 or 2060, because, so far, there is neither an adequate infrastructure nor are there acceptable means to store the energy. It is fundamentally terrifying when you think about how little alternative energy is thought through compared to nuclear fusion.
It is a recognized fact that very close international cooperation is imperative to achieve this project. It is this fact that has spurred countries like China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, Europe, America on to team up to jointly accomplish this task. This in itself is already a significant political signal. That it is not an easy task – that’s another issue.
With regard, though, to a vision for humanity, one can wonder quite fundamentally what energy sources are possible. For me, nuclear fusion really does seem to be the only alternative. It is however difficult to answer this question because we do not yet know: what problems do we have to expect, what problems will we have to solve? That the project of nuclear fusion is in every aspect, physically, technologically and above all organisationally, an immense challenge can not be denied. In comparison, the landing on the moon was like a walk in the park. But still – this might be my overall positive and optimistic attitude speaking – I can also look back from now: there has been tremendous progress in the five decades that I’ve worked in the field of nuclear fusion, much faster than any development in computer science (Moore’s law). In retrospect, it seems absolutely fantastic, a one-of-a-kind success story. But it’s not exactly like that, you have to be realistic, past developments give no guarantee for the future. If everything goes the way we expect, then it seems we can do it, that we will get there step by step. That is how you have to look at it.
Of course, I’ve followed my own path, not driven by a singular great vision but rather a total zigzag. But this is how I learned: you can truly put things in motion with an enormous potential for expertise. The more I work on it, the more convinced and the more wondrous I am, encouraged by the notion that if you follow along with something like this over such long periods of time, you have to say: that’s actually a fundamentally tremendous idea and a great vision for humanity. And so you pursue it and play your part in it. At the same time, physics is becoming ever more complex. In principle it’s a completely different approach from that of the 19th century, when we still thought that we could answer any physics question precisely by formulating a single question and a corresponding single experiment. We have to take as our point of departure that we ultimately – to put it more provocatively – still don’t know everything that we have questions about.
It’s a fascinating topic, and this is also the theme of the exhibition – certainty and vision. What I’m concerned with is how a vision is born. Take, for example, the book by Aldous Huxley, »Brave New World«: he had a vision of what the world might look like in the future. It’s incredible, if you will, that someone wrote this in the 1920s, and many of the fantasies have come true, one by one. The way society is developing the way it’s being manipulated – all of this was Huxley’s vision! But did Huxley think this up as a writer or as the brother of a biologist? It’s very interesting, particularly next to this notion of certainty and vision.
And what about vision in science? There we have a completely different time horizon. You don’t get a result immediately from pressing a button. Nuclear physics, in particular, is an endeavour that has lasted many years, almost generations already. So I can assume, I’m now sixty-nine, that I probably will see the international project ITER become operational but probably not more than that. But I am firmly convinced that the next generation can and will make progress. You never know exactly who will do it and when, but I have complete faith that there are enthusiastic physicists in every generation. Enthusiasm is an important word! And it also means that they are willing to work to realize their vision. So, progress in the scientific arena, this means a perpetuation that assures a continuum of experience and knowledge and, if you will, visions.
Fundamentally I rather disagree with pessimistic people who cynically say that everything was good in the past, those were the golden days and the new generation is good for nothing. On the contrary, I have the greatest faith that my granddaughter Mathilde and her cousin Pip will do their bit to convey the knowledge and experience of today into the world of tomorrow. I am firmly convinced of it, because I believe in progress. Each generation has its potential for enthusiasm. That is the only thing that matters.
(1) ITER: International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, is an international nuclear fusion research and engineering project, which aims to make the long-awaited transition from experimental studies of plasma physics to full-scale electricity-producing fusion power plants. Cf. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ITER) and (iter.org)