Sunday, January 20, 2008

Per ardua, ad astra

A couple of items of news have come to pass in the last month or two that have quite piqued my interest. First was the E8 'Theory of Everything' postulated by 'surfer dude' physicist A Garrett Lisi. Second was the news of 'First Plasma' on the WB-7 experimental fusion reactor.

Seen in isolation, these two pieces of news might elicit a "so what?" response from the unenlightened. "So what?" Mr / Ms A. Verage might say. "How do a theory of everything and method of attaining Nuclear Fusion fix my leaky tap / calm my raucous kids / lower my rising fuel bills / sack a corrupt politician?" Might be their response. The simple answer is it doesn't, so any debate generated by such a discovery might not be the one A. Verage should be bothered with.

Garrett Lisi's 'exceptionally simple' theory postulates that the interrelationships between energy, matter, gravity, and how it all fits together can be plotted using a single geometric 'map'. His model has come under fire from some grumpy 'String theory' physicists who might be a bit miffed that his theory might work better than theirs, and are a bit jealous of the publicity his theory has attracted. It may even be that String Theory physics can find a common thread (Bad pun, sorry) within the E8 model. However, that is a postulation all of it's own. By Lisi's own admission, the theory is 'young', and 'all or nothing' and 'requires work'. According to some sources, when the Large Hadron collider comes into operation, certain aspects of Lisi's theory can be tested against the results.

The news about the 'Polywell' reactor design is interesting because it may be able to produce the long sought after result of a workable Nuclear Fusion generator. Not only that, but a Fusion Generator small enough not to require a fixed location. In short, something that can put out enough power (Megawatts as opposed to Kilowatts of power) to make something like a Magnetoplasmadynamic thruster work for example. With enough cheap power, there is the potential for more economic spaceflight, more chance of actually attaining the velocities needed to take mankind to the stars. In addition, E8 theory might even provide one of the keys which could unlock the secret of Faster than Light travel.

Of course both E8 theory and the Polywell Fusion device might turn out to be one massively disappointing damp squib; or the politicians, in order to placate the squabbling masses of our crowded little planet, might argue that we should solve all of Earth's problems (As if that were likely) before even thinking of travelling to the Stars and cut the funding.

For myself, I remain optimistic and feel that there is much going on worth being sanguine about in the world of Physics. I will not go to the stars, being too old and farty, but my grandchildren might; and that will be something worth looking forward to.