Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Just like old times, only with more world-savingness

My freshman year in college, my neighbor down the hall, the fellow in the picture above, was building a contraption that looked very much like this one, only much more home-made looking with various colors of extension cords, duct tape and PVC pipe. One end face the door of his room. The other pointed out his window, like a cannon out the gun port of a ship. I asked him if he was a pirate. We became friends anyway. He eventually explained that it was a sort of cannon, a "linear inductance accelerator." It used electrical current to induce electrical fields that accelerated little aluminum rings down the length of the gun and shot them out the window. They didn't shoot very fast or very far, but Stephen built the thing while he was in high school, mostly from stuff he scavenged from his parents' basement. When the campus security guards would do their once a semester safety checks of the dorm rooms, Stephen would put Christmas lights and stuffed animals all over it and tell them it was a sculpture project.

Stephen is one of those people who is instantly recognizable as brilliant. Walk into a room where Stephen is and try not to get knocked over by the slightest meanderings of his enormous brain. But in addition to intellectual brilliance, Stephen is incredibly tireless, multi-talented and helpful. He was known as the "campus super hero."

It was therefore with very little surprise then that I watched as Stephen got degrees in mathematics, physics, electrical engineering, plasma physics, then went to work for a company whose goal is to save the world by producing cheap clean electricity from hydrogen fusion. And the company Stephen went to work for is of course going to do it much sooner, cleaner and at 1/100th the cost of anything any government or university could think to try. The picture above is of Stephen working on a piston he designed for that fusion reactor, and is from an article in this month's Popular Science. The similarity to the linear inductance accelerator is mostly in my mind. I can tell the photo is posed, though, because Stephen is not grinning, which he normally would be when fine-tuning one of his machines.

Stephen, by the way is Stephen Howard, who has occasionally posted to this blog. These days he is too busy saving the world.

1 comment:

jte said...

Cool beans. Just yesterday I was pooh-poohing the odds that affordable and functional fusion power would see the light of day any decade soon. I'll be happy if Stephen proves me wrong. But can he guarantee us that his fusion contraption will be clean, unlike the version in David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest?