‘Just So Science’ – So back to those impossible stars

By Elf Eldridge 13/09/2011 3


A couple of posts ago I mentioned that stars shouldn’t exist – at least not by classical physics standards anyway. I skirted the issue at the time, but it’s high time for a closer look as I cant delve into any more details about nanotech OR the lifecycle of stars without covering some basic quantum mechanical phenomena – turns out quantum mechanics is actually pretty important as I’ve mentioned before.

First i need to more accurately describe the problem. Atoms, as you may remember from high school, have two types of particles squashed tight together at their nucleus; the positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons. (If you need a refresher and a laugh look here). Those positive charges are the central ‘problem’ in fusion, as they repel other positive charges and mean that nuclei will try to get as far away from each other as possible if left to their own devices, almost like a little ‘force-field’ around each atom. Yet for fusion to occur, these positive charges must not only collide, but stick together – and at the temperature of stars, hydrogen atoms don’t have enough energy to do this – so how does fusion occur at all?

The curious case of the gigantic ball of glowing plasma that really shouldnt be able to....
The curious case of the gigantic ball of glowing plasma that really shouldn't be able to....

Well of course, it’s not the star that’s wrong – it’s our human lack of experience with the nanoscale that causes the problem. Matter actually only appears as a solid when you look at length scales longer than a few nanometers, below that it becomes apparent that what we refer to as ‘particles’, like electrons and protons and photons, are actually something else entirely – they’re waves AS WELL AS particles: the so called ‘wave-particle duality‘.  This wave nature allows particles traveling fast enough to pass through this ‘force field’, event though classically they don’t have enough energy to do so – they ‘tunnel’ though it. These little wave-particle things literally smash into one side of the barrier, and then occasionally appear on the other side,  without traveling through the barrier itself. That’s the equivalent of driving a car into a concrete wall at full speed, and occasionally – just occasionally mind you – the car disappearing on one side and reappearing on the other completely unscathed. Bizarre.

And this ‘quantum tunneling‘ process is how stars are able to fuse hydrogen nuclei together to form Helium; how they’re able to shed that little bit extra mass and convert it into the glorious electromagnetic radiation that we bask in all summer long. Once the nuclei tunnel through this ‘force-field’, they’re captured by the nuclear strong force. (you may guess by it’s name that its rather strong. Stronger in fact, than that repulsive force between the positively charged protons, but only active over very tiny distances; over about 0.000001 nanometers. [and a nanometre is 0.000000001 meters]) And finally it’s that strong force that holds the entire nuclei together in its stable form of Helium.

So just to reiterate. It’s the fact that everything solid in our universe is actually comprised of waves at some ridiculously small length scales, that allows stars to shine. Some of the smallest and strangest phenomena in the universe dictating the behaviour of the largest, longest lived structures and , by association, all the diversity of life that has arisen as a consequence of them. All just a by-product of some tiny little waves.

You just KNOW this guy fully appreciated the majesty of the implications of this - even though the author of this blog doesnt
You just KNOW this guy fully appreciates the majesty of the implications of this - even though the author of this blog doesn't.

And we’ve still only scratched the surface of the true weirdness of the universe – wait till you see what happens when you get stellar quantum-mechanical objects like neutron stars. Or entanglement. Or metamaterials.

The universe suddenly becomes a for more interesting place than we have ever dared imagine.

But, just to keep things in perspective, my next post is about dog feces, cockroaches and Girl-scout cookies. :p


3 Responses to “‘Just So Science’ – So back to those impossible stars”

  • I take it we are talking transverse waves as opposed to longitudinal waves.
    Yes plasma is the new frontier of physics (considering it is said to make up 99.99% of the universe) and there is and argument about whether fusion happens at the middle of the sun or on the outside or both.
    Fusion is another topic which is a new frontier, according to a documentary I saw the universe is comprised of gas and dust (we will leave energy out for now) and it is from this fusion in stars that we get transmutation of Hydrogen into the elements, wow.

  • Nuclear physicists in 1989 were riding a bonanza of tens of billions in government research money for the development of hot fusion reactors. After several decades of hard work, they were still far from achieving break-even, where output energy exceeds input energy. Just as the next round of appropriations was assured, Fleischmann and Pons came along with the announcement that they had already achieved excess heat output without government support and on an inexpensive desktop setup.

    Denial was immediate. MIT and Caltech, who had been leaders in hot fusion work, immediately went to work “trying” to replicate the experiment. In just five weeks Caltech announced negative results. At a May 1st 1989 APS meeting in Baltimore, two thousand physicists gave a standing ovation to the Caltech team’s presentation. A lynch mob mentality, combined with denial, turned the exciting discovery of cold fusion into an enemy.

    MIT helped set the tone by arranging a front page story in the Boston Herald on the day of the meeting with the headline, “MIT bombshell knocks fusion “breakthrough” cold.” The story was an interview with leaders of the MIT fusion lab that accused Fleischmann and Pons of fraud. The charge was later denied but tapes of the actual interview confirm what was said.

    MIT further disgraced itself by altering data in its failure to replicate study. This was discovered two years later by MIT employee Eugene Mallove, who found copies of the July 10 and July 13 drafts of the paper. The July 10th version had a graph that clearly showed excess heat. In the July 13 version the graph was redrawn to show no excess heat. The atmosphere at MIT, as shown by a “Wake for Cold Fusion” party (before the data was analyzed) and t-shirts and mugs offered by the plasma fusion lab, was hardly impartial.

    To this day, denial reigns among most of the guilty parties of this travesty. The Department of Energy, Nature magazine, Scientific American, the American Physical Society, the U.S. Patent Office and many of the world’s top physicists still cling irrationally to the belief that cold fusion is junk science. Of course, this is how denial works: We protect our belief system by quietly stepping around the “elephant under the rug.” As long as a majority of our group backs us up, our view of reality remains grossly distorted to preserve the group-think consensus. Global warming deniers do this every day.

    The Fleischmann-Pons announcement should have been the start of a new era of cheap, clean energy that would have saved us from the financial and environmental disasters and wars caused by fossil fuel energy. Instead, denial and dirty tricks caused us to waste 23 years and tens of billions of dollars on failed nuclear projects as though nothing had happened. The Presidents 2012 budget includes $2.5 billion for such projects. The first DEMO hot fusion plant is currently scheduled for 2033.

    A surprising natural process was discovered in 1989 that can provide us with clean, essentially free energy. It clearly conflicts with the current consensus understanding of quantum mechanics that works nicely for hot fusion reactions. It seems reasonable to try to improve the theory to accommodate this new reality, but denial has instead tricked many good scientists to try to “shoot the messenger.”

    The time has come to admit the mistake and get busy trying to improve our understanding so that we can perfect this amazing new technology. We have spent $20 billion and 55 years trying to reach break-even with hot fusion. Time to give cold fusion a chance.