Monday, March 16, 2009

Lasering in on good news

Tom Friedman is my favorite pundit because he always writes something so illuminating it leaves me feeling elevated or something so stupid it makes me feel I’m superior to his evident genius.

For instance, a couple of months ago, Friedman wrote that the economic crisis in which we are mired is so foreboding that we should stop dining out.

I immediately thought, “What an idiot! Stop eating out? What about all the creative and fun people who run restaurants? Shouldn’t we now, more than ever, support these wonderful places of convivial fun so they’ll be open when we want to celebrate the good times that are bound to come back?”

What did he expect us to do? Rush out to Sam’s Club en masse and stock up on barrels full of macaroni ‘n’ cheese, rice ‘n’ beans and corn flakes and graze on that unappetizing mess while all our favorite restaurants go belly up?

I reacted to his plea for sensible restraint by taking my wife and kids out for five consecutive nights of expensive splurges at all our favorite locally-owned restaurants. I left 20 percent tips for even the mean and homely waitresses. I paid for it all with a fan of nearly maxed out credit cards. To this day, the ungodly sum rides as I squeak by on $10 monthly minimum payments on a sum that cooks along accruing 18 percent interest.

I remember thinking, “That ought to show Tom Friedman and his stupid arguments about fiscal responsibility!”

Then there are the days like today when I wake up and read Friedman’s fine column
The Next Really Cool Thing.

In it he talks about the National Ignition Facility near San Francisco. The government stimulus-infused plant consists of 192 giant lasers. Friedman doesn’t say how big a giant laser is or if Godzilla could wear one in a holster, but we’re to assume they’re powerful devices.

What happens is these lasers pour their concentrated energies into a target chamber housing a tiny gold can with a peppercorn-sized particle of frozen hydrogen. Once one of those pellets is heated and compressed by the lasers, it reaches temperatures over 800 million degrees Fahrenheit or, according to NIF director Edward Moses, a temperature “far greater than exists at the center of the sun.”

Here’s one way in which Friedman and I differ in a journalistic sense: He accepts as fact that this guy Moses claims to know how hot it is at the center of the sun. I guess I’m old school in that regard. I would have pinned Moses down on that last point.

“Have you, Mr. Moses, or any of your scholarly friends ever actually been to the center of the sun with a nuclear themometer and, if so, did you need something along the order of SPF 99 Trillion to survive the visit?”

(The other ways in which we differ is Friedman has a vast and influential readership, a deep-pocket expense account and an honest-to-goodness employer, but let’s try not to lose our focus here. Remember, this is a story about lasers.)

The process causes the pellets to give off a burst of energy that can be harnessed to produce massive amounts of steam to drive a turbine and create electricity for your home, a process not dissimilar from what a coal plant does. “Only this energy,” Friedman writes, “would be free, globally available, safe and secure and could be integrated seamlessly into our current electric grid,” he writes.

This is the kind of thing that just thrills unabashed optimists like me. I’ve long argued we are captured amid some kind of awful lag where our brightest minds have access to these incredible computer technologies and choose to fritter them all away on creating games and fluff. I think it’s long past time our Einsteins stopped making iPods.

Friedman calls this laser technology a potential game changer, something unforeseen that can come in and in one fell swoop eliminate some of the global problems that seem so vexing and hazardous.

I hope on this one, he’s right.

If he is, I’m going to one day inform Friedman I was an early and ardent supporter of the technology and congratulate him for, on the NIF story, being brilliantly illuminating -- and using a word like “illuminating” to describe a .story about laser technology is a play on words a writer like Friedman ought to love.

Maybe he’ll hail me as an insightful colleague and accept my invitation to go out to dinner at one of our fine local restaurants. He can pay.

Remember, Mr. Big Shot’s the one with the expense account and I’m sure the restaurant will appreciate the business.


Unknown said...

Free power from 190+ giant lasers firing at heavy hydrogen.

So many things here don't make sense.

First of all, building a gigantic high tech 200~ish giant laser facility can't be "free". Heavy hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) are primarily produced in nuclear reactors. Those aren't free either.

The huge amounts of energy needed to pump the lasers to ignite the fusion reaction of teeny amounts of heavy hydrogen didn't come from nowhere either.

I have heard that using lasers to ignite heavy hydrogen for "energy creation" is like using a blast furnace to light a match and then harnessing the heat of the match.

Chris Rodell said...

Are you calling the great Tom Friedman an idiot? Yeah, it does sound fantastical to me, too. But Friedman's no light weight (like me). Remember, he writes for the NYTimes and not Weekly World News (like I used to).

Thanks for checking in and for your thoughtful comment, JonPaul. Have a great day.