The First Energy-Positive Fusion Reaction Sparks a Whole Lotta Hope—and Hype

Here comes the sun.

Finally, we did it. Some 4.6 billion years after the hydrogen molecules first smashed together deep within the sun (and 118 years after Albert Einstein’s famous equation theorized how it should be possible to achieve similar results here on Earth), scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California succeeded in creating a controlled nuclear fusion reaction that produced more energy than lasers delivered to it.

For science, the news is about as big as it gets. Fusion power is more than simply a novel way to charge your smartphone. It is the holy grail of both physics and engineering, a triumph of human endeavour that represents our mastery over energy and matter, the fundamental building blocks of the universe itself—and of our ability to harness those building blocks to power human civilization for as long as that civilization lasts.

Predictably, the news sent off a flurry of headlines trumpeting the breakthrough’s implications: the obsolescence of fossil fuels; victory in the war against climate change; the end of poverty; the answer to worldwide water scarcity; and the solution to a variety of humanity’s other problems. And fair enough, some estimates suggest the Earth’s oceans contain enough hydrogen to power our entire planet at today’s levels of energy consumption for about two billion years, although fusion is currently created by smashing together two hydrogen isotopes: deuterium, which is abundant in seawater, and tritium, which is extremely rare.

Just as predictably, the news also produced a flurry of naysaying, criticism, and “not-so-fast” commentary intended to pour cold water on such flights of fancy. And in fact, while a net-positive reaction is a major scientific milestone, a commercially viable fusion reactor remains at least several decades away. Building one will require practical solutions to a range of technical and design conundrums, solutions that will likely cost hundreds of billions in research—money that would be better spent trying to solve a variety of humanity’s more pressing problems.

The lob-and-volley between hope and hype is par for the course these days. Unlike, say, the moon landings of yesteryear, today’s breakthroughs function as a charged ideological battlefield, one where debates over politics, economics, social policy, morality, and other topics quickly overwhelm the spirit of celebration. And somewhere out there, Mr. Einstein is shaking his head.