A mix of hard-core academics collided with practical field experience in the highly charged “Fission, Fusion, and other Energy Sources” panel. For those who couldn’t pick fission, fusion, or a bison from a police lineup, it’s pretty elemental. In the case of fission, Einstein’s famous equation for special relativity E=MC2 isn’t just a clever T-shirt slogan. When the nucleus of an atom splits into several smaller fragments, those fragments have slightly (about 0.1%) less mass. With the speed of light as a constant, the “missing” mass is converted to energy. Fusion, on the other hand, releases nuclear energy by the fusion of two light elements. Fusion powers the sun and stars, but it also gives a hydrogen bomb its kick. Oh, and a bison is like a buffalo, which really has no relevance to nuclear physics.
Among the talk of uranium deposits, the Schrödinger’s equation jokes, magic numbers, and the moderation of neutrons, I had a Reed Richards fangirl moment. Having been a physics major myself at Purdue, I have a fascination for the field (computer science just paid more). My interests were more theoretical—quantum entanglement theory to power ships, teleportation, and the like. In the recent film Fantastic Four, Reed Richards built a quantum teleportation device in his garage. During this panel, Georgia Tech’s Chad Ramey talked of the nuclear reactor he built in his garage. I found that intriguing, including the ingenuity of his materials. For example, to moderate the neutrons, he used scented candle wax. They trap the particles allowing him safe experimentation. It’s like a geek’s paraffin dream.
The panel ended with a practical demonstration of a contamination suit, which Luke—an Air Force volunteer—donned for the crowd. They discussed the correct way to zip himself into it, and more importantly, to strip out of it without spreading any contamination. So, kind of a clean striptease.
All in all, it was a captivating look at nuclear power by veteran Richard “Hawk” Altstatt, an expert in survivability, space, and radiation modeling, with great on-the-ground commentary from fellow panelist John Burns.