Fusion and the futuristic science of Star Trek!

A fascinating panel convened yesterday at San Diego’s Comic-Con Museum in Balboa Park. The Science of Star Trek – Travel at Warp Speed featured a Star Trek editor, a Star Trek writer, and three scientists from General Atomics, which is headquartered here in San Diego.

The event coincided with the Comic-Con Museum’s current exhibition honoring Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek.

Five panelists focused primarily on the technology of nuclear fusion, which has been pioneered at General Atomics for many decades. Fusion powers the fictional impulse engines of Star Trek’s starships.

It was fun to learn that Star Trek was a major inspiration of David Humphreys, a nuclear fusion scientist who has worked at General Atomics for 40 years! (Incidentally, his favorite captain is Kirk.)

All sorts of different Star Trek technology, like the matter/anti-matter warp drive, tricorders and communicators, were touched upon. The panelists loved that much of Star Trek’s speculative tech has been based on real physics and scientific possibility. Remember how Kirk would sit in the captain’s chair and sign off on a device that looked like a tablet? Some of that once-fictional tech exists today!

Other not-so-realistic Star Trek technology would be used merely as a plot device. The transporters allowed a story (and Dr. McCoy’s scrambled molecules) to quickly transition from scene to scene. Human scale teleportation remains a somewhat unlikely dream. (But who knows?)

The most exciting part of the discussion concerned the imminent emergence of sustained nuclear fusion as a potentially limitless source of cheap, clean energy. Unlike nuclear fission, with its dangerous radioactive waste and chain reaction, the technology that produces fusion is inherently safe. And its “fuel” is hydrogen, which is practically limitless. The trick is energizing and concentrating hydrogen atoms so that they fuse and become helium, as they do inside the very, very hot sun. No easy task!

Fusion has made such tremendous advances that the world now stands at the brink of major breakthroughs, due primarily to the ITER project–one of the largest scientific programs in human history–where 35 nations from around the world hope to perfect and share practical working technology. General Atomics produced the super powerful magnets utilized by ITER.

Another thing the panelists addressed is how young people today can take part in this exciting future. Diverse, good-paying jobs connected to fusion technology are going to be plentiful. General Atomics is looking for interns! Can you imagine a more interesting place to work and learn?

It was great to see how San Diego’s own General Atomics is helping to lead the way to a world that will be completely transformed in a positive way by nuclear fusion. And it was inspiring to see scientists from General Atomics out in the community. They also participated in the Barrio Logan STEAM Block Party, which I blogged about last weekend.

When I was in middle school, many moons ago, we went on a field trip to General Atomics. I remember how the scientists briefly fired their fusion reactor under a huge protective pool of water. Now, almost half a century later, we are at the cusp of something so huge, the world might be transformed beyond anything that even the creators of Star Trek envisioned!

Oh–the next photo, taken on the main floor of the Comic-Con Museum, is of Star Trek cosplayers belonging to the Science Fiction Coalition. Live long and prosper!

I live in downtown San Diego and love to walk around with my camera! You can follow Cool San Diego Sights via Facebook or Twitter!

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Richard Schulte

Downtown San Diego has been my home for many years. My online activities reflect my love for writing, blogging, walking and photography.

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