Barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Source: Wikimedia

Jonathan Tennenbaum: You have explained how cosmology got into the dead end of the Big Bang. But what makes all of this relevant for the present situation in the world?

You mentioned that fusion was discovered – or hypothesized – as the energy source of the Sun and other stars, and then actually produced on the Earth, first experimentally, then on a large scale in thermonuclear weapons and finally in fusion reactors, including the one you are developing. If we forget about the Big Bang, how could cosmology help us to realize nuclear fusion as a commercial energy source here on Earth?

Eric Lerner: Well, to explain this, let me introduce someone to your readers. Hannes Alfvén, who won the 1970 Nobel Prize in physics, was a pioneer of the field called plasma physics. Plasmas are gases in which some of the electrons are freed from atoms and are free to move.

This means that they can carry current, and the current can produce magnetic fields. Plasmas are the dominant form for matter in the universe. Stars are made out of plasma as well as practically all the matter we can observe between the stars, the interstellar and intergalactic matter.

Now, on Earth you need plasmas to create fusion energy, a source of energy that can be far cheaper and far cleaner, because it has a higher energy density than other sources. This was the connection that Alfvén and many of his colleagues were developing: If we study processes such as the aurora here on Earth and solar flares on the Sun, going up to the much larger scale of the Universe we observe magnetic filaments – made of plasma, essentially magnetic tornadoes. These give us a clue, a pathway to controlling plasmas here on Earth to realize fusion.

A solar flare on the sun.

So this is one connection. By looking at plasmas on an astronomical scale we can know how they behave on a lesser scale. Phenomena that on a galactic scale take hundreds of millions or billions of years, if you scale them down to a laboratory they typically take only millionths of a second.

Now, Alfvén was one of the initial strong critics of the Big Bang hypothesis and mainstream cosmology in general. He pointed out – and I certainly have done so many times since then – that one of the key failures of conventional cosmology today is that it ignores the dynamics of plasmas and basically says that only gravitation is the driving force within the Universe.

Of course, mainstream cosmologists don’t disagree that fusion generates energy within stars. But this isn’t the interesting part of the story to them. For them this is a sort of the epilogue to the Big Bang. The Big Bang and everything associated with is supposed to be driven mainly by gravitational forces and by what I would call imaginary forces, like the inflation force, which is hypothesized to exist although no one has ever seen any clear evidence.

But the real forces that we can observe here on Earth – the forces of electromagnetism operating in plasmas – form a strong connection between the cosmos and what we can observe in laboratory experiments. And that’s exactly what’s ignored by conventional cosmology.

JT: But this is then a gross oversight.

EL: Right, and even though they say, oh, yeah, there are magnetic fields on the astrophysical scale, they completely misinterpret them. To make sure that message got across, Alfvén said this in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize: that there are many people in astrophysics who have so little knowledge of plasmas that basically what they’re dealing with are theoretical concepts that have no connection to what is actually known about plasmas from astronomical observation and in the laboratory.

Hannes Alfvén, who won the 1970 Nobel Prize in physics, was a pioneer of plasma physics. Source: Wikimedia.

JT: Let me pose a question, just to clarify this. If we look at our galaxy and its environment in the Universe how much energy is in the form of electric and magnetic fields, compared with gravitational energy?

EL: This is an interesting question. If you’re dealing with the inner part, the bright part of the galaxy where most of the stars are concentrated, then gravity is dominant over magnetic fields, on average. However, there are two big exceptions. One is if you go to the outer part of the galaxy, which is mostly plasma, with very few stars, their magnetic fields dominate.

And that’s very important because one key piece of evidence cited for the imaginary concept of dark matter is that the velocity of the plasma in the outer part of our galaxy is too fast for what could be explained by the gravitational field of the matter we observe. So the existence of unseen matter, so-called dark matter, is postulated to explain this.

But, in fact, we can account for this high velocity of this outer plasma by magnetic fields, which we know are there because there are various means to observe magnetic fields at great distances. And people have pointed out for decades that the magnetic field can hold the plasma and drag it along, giving rise to the high velocities. 

The other big exception is in the formation of large structures ranging from stars to galaxies and beyond. This is something that Alfvén discussed theoretically in the 1970s and that I did in the 1980s. The dominant process that operates here, and we can observe it on Earth in the laboratory, is the pinch effect. The pinch effect is when two currents moving in the same direction attract each other through their magnetic fields.

This causes an instability called the filamentary instability. Electric currents and the plasma that carries them are drawn together into filamentary structures. You can observe a whole hierarchy of the formation of these plasma filaments on all scales from the laboratory on up. People have observed them on an intergalactic scale and on the scale of galaxies. Such filaments are found running through the spiral arms of every galaxy.

Magnetic plasma filaments carrying electric current along their length exist at all scales from the laboratory (top: 1cm-wide image of filaments in dense plasma focus fusion device – LPPFusion) to interstellar space (center: 2-light-years-long portion of Cygnus Loop – Hubble Space Telescope NASA/ESA) and beyond to superclusters of galaxies. Such filaments contract to form stars like the Sun (bottom-star-forming filaments – ALMA telescope). Filaments are also prominent in Veil Nebula – pictured near the top of this article.

These filaments pinch together matter in free space into molecular clouds and out of these molecular clouds condense the stars. At the level of the molecular cloud, the magnetic fields and the gravitational field are basically comparable in strength.

So it’s the interplay of gravitation and these electromagnetic forces that actually leads to the production of galaxies, stars, planets and so on. Again, this was hypothesized 40 to 50 years ago and observed in the subsequent period.

JT: Readers of my articles about the dense plasma focus will be familiar with these plasma filaments, which, if I understand you, obey the same laws and have same basic structure in the laboratory, in the plasma focus device, as in these astrophysical objects.

EL: On the laboratory scale you can neglect gravitation. On a larger scale you have to take gravitation into account, and that’s really great because it’s only the interaction of gravity and electromagnetism that leads to the formation of this beautiful hierarchy of structures that we see in the Universe: super clusters of galaxies, clusters of galaxies, galaxies, stars, planets. 

That is discussed in much greater detail in this scientific paper I recently submitted, but the basic point is this: You throw out the Big Bang hypothesis, and you throw out the idea that the Universe came into existence 14 billion years ago in a giant explosion.

Twin galaxies swirl in outer space.

Then, gravity and electromagnetism can – by themselves, based on their well-known laws of action – over a much longer period of time, trillions of years, lead to a hierarchical formation of objects in the Universe. First the largest and then successively smaller objects. This occurs thanks to a sort of counterpoint, I would say musically, of gravity and electromagnetic fields.

This changes only at the stage when the universe starts to produce the smaller objects, the stars, and then you have the introduction of the nuclear reactions – the nuclear energy that then further transforms the universe. So if we look at the galaxy today, we are living inside a thermonuclear fusion electric generator.

JT. How does that work?

EL: Most of the energy in the galaxies is produced by short-lived stars, much larger stars than our Sun, that are constantly coming into existence and going out of existence. About one percent of their energy goes into enormous stellar winds, much are much larger than the solar wind produced by our Sun.

These drag the plasma around, and in moving through the pre-existing magnetic field you get a dynamo effect which generates electric current and strengthens the magnetic fields. These magnetic fields combined with gravitation lead to the compression process, which produces more stars to continue the cycle.

So the magnetic field and electric currents that we see within our galaxy and other galaxies today are not relics of something that happened 14 billion years ago. They’re being produced right here and now.