Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Dream of Fusion Claims a Victim

Dr. Leonardo Mascheroni, a former physicist at the government lab in Los Alamos, has been indicted for trying to sell nuclear secrets to a foreign government. The case is a bizarre one. Mascheroni has been trying for the past decade to convince the government to fund his scheme to produce fusion power, which involves a giant laser. Frustrated by his inability to raise the funds, he made numerous veiled threats to sell his weapons expertise to other countries if Congress would not at least hold hearings on his plan:
As he was snubbed by Congress and federal experts, Dr. Mascheroni, a naturalized citizen who was born in Argentina, grew increasingly frustrated and bitter. He became known in Washington for veiled threats to take his atomic expertise abroad unless the government backed his laser plan. . . . A 22-count indictment against Dr. Mascheroni, made public on Sept. 17, quotes his wife, Marjorie, as saying that he would “make bombs” overseas “if they don’t listen to him in Washington.”
Then the FBI sent an agent to entrap Mascheroni, posing as an agent of Venezuela and offering him $800,000 for nuclear secrets. I wonder if this was essentially a ploy to shut Mascheroni up or get him out of the way. Mascheroni wasn't particularly interested in the money, and what he tried to get for his information was help for his laser fusion plan. Mascheroni says that by the time he actually handed over documents to the agent, he already knew the man was an FBI informant, and he just went ahead in order to keep drawing attention to his plan. Which raises an interesting question: can you be convicted of espionage if you think the man posing as a foreign agent is really a US spy?

I am struck by the way the dream of fusion power, hanging out there just beyond our technological reach, haunts many scientists. Some of them end up like the purveyors of perpetual motion machines, certain that if they only had enough money and the right materials they could do the impossible. And we know fusion works -- unlimited free energy is there for us, if we just knew how to grasp it. So far as I know, Mascheroni is the first scientist to be completely unhinged by our inability to claim this prize, but I am sure there are many others nearly as bitter and frustrated.

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