Prof Cox, fusion and the wonder of risk

Brian Cox has already suggested that mankind is alone, and should celebrate the wonder of it.  But, as he is foremost in reminding us, we are also the shards of star-dust that have become conscious and clever. Indeed, in creating industrial scale fusion reactors, if we ever do, we will have succeeded in not merely imitating our sun, but have found how to deploy its forces.

We appear, then, to be stardust which can make stars.

That much is exhilarating. But Brian Cox went rather further in his recent Horizon programme (Star on Earth, broadcast 23 January 2015). He celebrated the attempt to create fusion power as – like space exploration – an example of the wonder of man’s ability to “over-reach” his capabilities. He said that this is “where we want to be”.

He did not precisely say, but I think it follows from his expressed view, that the great thing to understand about man is that we are at our best when we create the kind of problem which demands a solution which only we at our best, and in the nick of time, can create. (I append a rough transcript of part of his script, so you can judge how far he went along these lines.)

So here’s my take on all this. We are masters of brinkmanship. When we “over-reach”, we are not merely going where no-one has gone, as in going over a horizon we had not crossed before. We are, in crossing the horizon, and because we have little alternative, opening up a new Pandora’s box. Those horizons can be geographical (as in terrestrial or extra-terrestrial exploration) or in creativity (as when we create a star).

It may be worth adding that we create other Pandora’s boxes, as when we create something a bit like a brain in a grain of sand: computers take us on a journey of consciousness with no predictable outcome.

We are the species which enjoys risk, and can respond to it creatively, but also unblinkingly.

We are the species which does not deign to think there is safety in safety.

This is more or less what I aimed to say in my little book, Risk, the human choice (ESEF, 2000). My point was that it is not enough to celebrate man’s love of adventure and progress, though these are both wonderful and were both disparaged by the Romantic movement and by its spawn, the Green movement. We need also to see the loveliness of risk which is at the heart of the enterprise.

To unpick that a bit, with the case of “over-population”. For centuries and perhaps millennia mankind has found ways of keeping ever larger numbers of people alive (and now, larger numbers of large people alive), and has had to be inventive (dangerously inventive, at times) as it feeds them. Agriculture, exploration, territorial expansion, and empire have been the intertwined result, and a very mixed blessing – glorious and sordid by turns – they have been.

We are also deliciously greedy. We suffer (that would be better expressed as, we enjoy) divine discontent. We like to live large. We like to travel further, and go faster, and be warmer, and less stuck with manual labour, than our forebears or neighbours.

The resulting energy profligacy has produced problems. We have used up a good deal of the stored solar energy in the planet’s fossil fuels; we may, in global warming, have discovered a natural ceiling to the amount of fossil fuel we should burn; confronted with these limits, we have wondered if harvesting the contemporary crop of solar energy will quite satisfy our needs and wants.
All in all, we may well need or want Brian Cox’s fusion nuclear power. If we pull it off, it will be moot whether we shall have God or just ourselves to thank for our inventiveness. Either way, it’s a small difference, I think.

The point I want to make here is that Brian Cox is dead right to say (if it is what he thinks) that mankind is at its best when we both create a problem and press on to solve it.

At the heart of my support for this proposition is the thought that our appetite for extravagance and its cousin or ally, the appetite for risk, are profoundly attractive. To say so is to make a statement of one’s taste: I like the Cavalier a little bit more than I admire the Puritan.

But there is morality as well as aesthetics here. If doctors and plumbers in their kindly way keep millions of human babies alive, I insist that is a good thing. But it is a risky thing. Those babies will grow into doctors and plumbers and philosophers and tourists and consumers. The crush of their numerousness may produce co-operation or chaos, fascism or democracy. They will bring more appetites and problems into the world, but also more delights, and more solutions.

It was the profound insight of Julian Simon, of whom I have written elsewhere, to celebrate the opportunity presented by each human birth, and not least in the pressures each produces.

I am thrilled that Brian Cox is bringing that sort of insight to a new, young generation.


Part of the Cox Horizon script’s conclusion
Visiting the ITER fusion reactor (his preferred fusion solution), Prof Cox says: “If this doesn’t work then we are literally in real trouble; hopefully it’s all engineering and it’s all practice. It’s not simple, because it will take decades, but it’s not a fundamental issue.” Sitting on a hill above a city’s lights and traffic, he says: “If you asked me before I made this film what were the greatest achievements in the history of humanity I would say the moments when we over-reached, the moments when we set foot on the moon or took photos of Saturn and Jupiter and the distant planets.” But now, he implies, he sees the essential drama nearer home, and says: “Building a fusion power station that works and delivers electrons into the power grid of a city will be the next step in the evolution of our civilisation. It is just about beyond our capabilities technologically and scientifically at the moment. And that is surely the best place to be, that’s the place you want to stand as a human being. So I would celebrate the fusion power station builders in a way I wouldn’t before I made this film”.



Paul Seaman
Richard, Cox is both pessimistic and fatalistic. Fusion would be great to have, and I think we shall master it eventually. But our future does not depend on it. Cox risks "waiting for godot" or recommending that we adopt a Micawber-like dogma: "fusion will turn up” in the nick of time ...while frightening us with his doom-ladedn vision of what would happen to the human race if we cannot make it work. Contrariwise: There is an abundance of energy resources and technological solutions waiting to be developed today. It is today's adverseness to risk that threatens our future. We need to march on with fracking, fission, fossil fuels (perhaps mixed with bio-tech) and mass solar power to generate vastly more energy much more cheaply than we do today. En route, we must build more pipelines and power grids to distribute energy efficiently and cost-effectively over vast distances. The key to making progress is to see the necessity and possibility to break free of natural limits. To do that we must also grasp, what Cox seemingly fails to, that man's inventiveness is limitless. In other words, let's not get fixated on one make or break solution. Not even one as exciting as fusion.
Paul, Your cmment is very sound. I hope it doesn't undermine all of the thesis I was pursuing: that mankind pushes his demands of himself and the planet quite hard, and is therefore greatly in need of the inventiveness he is blessed with. But yes... I should have spotted the weakness in my thesis (and maybe in Prof Cox's), that fusion is the only get-out-of-jail card we have.

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Publication date

20 February 2015