The breakthrough in nuclear fusion at the Lawrence Livermore laboratory in California is “potentially the biggest news of the decade”, says Megan McArdle in The Washington Post. Of course, we need to treat the announcement with caution. Although scientists did achieve “ignition” – a reaction that produced more energy than it absorbed – it required “an array of 192 lasers so huge that the building where they’re housed is 10 storeys high”. And the energy surplus doesn’t factor in what it took to build and operate this mega-laser array. Clearly, abundant power that’s “too cheap to meter” is a long way off. But this is still a huge deal.
Most atoms in the universe were forged by nuclear fusion “in the core of some ancient sun” – now human beings are “inching toward mastering the very process that made our world”. And just think how the previous “energy revolution” – the shift from horsepower to fossil fuels – transformed society. These days, the average person is “healthier, better fed, more lavishly entertained and more comfortable than a medieval king”. Limitless energy from nuclear fusion would have a similar effect: we could bring the whole world up to a Western standard of living, and beyond, without worrying about the environmental cost. Sure, “enormous” hurdles remain, but we should still celebrate the Livermore results. Human progress has always been about “halting, partial successes that add up, over centuries, to miracles”.