Zee pinch flashovers • 18 February 2009 • The SnowBlog

Zee pinch flashovers

I've said some harsh things about Horizon before. It was the science program of my youth and it was so full of info I'd have to get books out of the library to puzzle it out. It looked at black holes and quarks and the origin of the universe. Now it's self-consciously shot and almost content-free, and tackles diet fads and homeopathy. But last night they slipped up and broadcast a show that didn't insult my intelligence. I was expecting to cringe, but I thought it was time to give Horizon another chance. And I was surprised and delighted by their look at generating electricity from hydrogen fusion. The show wasn't as dense with theory as in the olden days, which is fine, because it was absorbing nevertheless, and for once the self-consciously abstract camerawork didn't seem like padding in a show already full of padding. No, instead all the boke and lens flares did what they were supposed to do: give you a moment or two to think about what had just been said. I think the key was that it was narrated (and I assume largely written) by Prof. Brian Cox, who looks like he should be in a band (he actually was in D:Ream ! !). He's forty and looks about twenty-eight, and holds a physics professorship at the University of Manchester, which means he looks a TV presenter but can talk comfortably about quantum mechanics and fundamental forces. Unlike the BBC's usual Quentins and Julians whose art history degrees leave them fumbling when they find themselves producing Horizon and writing science-based voiceovers. And the content of the show didn't suck either. If we can make power stations that run on hydrogen fusion, we can power the world without wrecking the climate or needing to fight over the last drops of oil. I'd understood that fusion research had stalled, but this program makes it sound like it's alive and kicking, and just possibly on the way to rescuing us. Brits can watch the show again here if they're quick.
Click on the thumbnail above for a massive picture of a z-pinch flashover. It's beautiful. A z-pinch, by the way, is a way of running so much current through a wire that it's crushed by its own magnetic field. The 'flashover' is when the massive pulse of electromagnetic energy involved in creating a z-pinch causes spontaneous indoor lightning as everything metal nearby starts conducting.


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