by Katie Butler Johnson
For the first time ever, we humans created the power of the sun in a lab.
Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California created a nuclear fusion reaction that actually made more energy than it took to start the process. DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm called it: “One of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st Century.”
She compared it to the Wright Brothers flights at Kitty Hawk.
Although it will take decades to develop commercial use of fusion energy, it could eventually provide limitless, inexpensive, clean energy. It could replace fossil fuels, end oil dependency and clean up our atmosphere.
I’ve a personal interest in this breakthrough. My late husband, Claiborne Johnson Jr, was a high energy particle physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab in the 60’s. While a grad student, he ran experiments on the Berkeley atom smashers to discover particles of matter and how they interact. I think he was a very early traveler on the path leading to this breakthrough. I’m sorry he didn’t live to witness it.
News of the achievement got me thinking of him and our years in Berkeley. I was a newly-wed from Long Island married to a bright young physicist from Dallas. He was on a National Science Foundation Fellowship working for his Ph.D. at Berkeley. It was the 1960’s and ground zero for flower children and student unrest.
Berkeley is beautifully set - nestled into the hills across the bay from San Francisco. With its politically and culturally diverse population, you’d often get into deep discussions with people holding viewpoints differing from yours. If you’d been raised in a homogeneous bubble as I had, you know how easy it would be to just adopt your bubble’s viewpoints and not bother to think about other perspectives. When you’re surrounded by academics with intelligent stances on a myriad of topics, you tend to listen closely when your views are challenged and either reconsider your position or learn how to defend it. Berkeley was my rite of passage.
Along the way, I got to interact with some famous people like the three physics department’s Nobel Laureates. They could have been intimidating to non-techie me, but Owen Chamberlain and Emilio Segre - who shared the Nobel Physics prize in 1959 for the discovery of the antiproton - and Edward Teller who won the Nobel Peace prize in 1991- were very personable. And, I can attest from having witnessed it myself, Owen “cut a mean rug” when rock ‘n roll music played at physics department shindigs.
After Husband left the academic, he had a career in telecommunications. He served as technical attaché to a US Congressional Delegation to the Czech Republic in 1993 after Czechia’s split from Slovakia. He was there to advise and guide them on the technology needed to set up free elections. And, yes, he got to meet Shirley Temple and see her Oscar. He also was included in the Rose Garden Reception by Al Gore for developers of the Internet.
Towards the end of his business career, he took a sabbatical to serve as executive director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Telecommunications Management. Shortly after, he was recruited to be the founding director of a similar think-tank at UC Berkeley. We were poised to move back to California, but never made the move. Just months after he took on the helm at Berkeley, he came down with diffuse systemic sclerosis and subsequently retired.
Those experiments he’d performed in Berkeley in the 60’s advanced the understanding of atomic particles, but they had a darker side. Safety parameters had been misjudged. Years after the experiments, many of the experimenters suffered illnesses traced back to those experiments. Although they’d worn radiation monitors and were believed to be safe at the time, they’d been damaged. OSHA acknowledged this and Congress passed a bill to compensate the families of those scientists lost due to Atomic Energy Commission experiments. I used that compensation to take our children and their families on an expedition to Ecuador and the Galapagos, a trip high on Husband’s bucket list but one he didn’t live long enough to make.
I think he made that trip with us - “in spirit!”
(P.S. That picture you see is grandkids straddling the equator in Ecuador.)