Jonathan Tennenbaum: You were just sketching a radically different view of the Universe without a Big Bang – a Universe shaped by a hierarchy of filamentary structures, formed by electric currents and magnetic fields, in which the galaxies function as thermonuclear electric generators and stars are constantly being formed through a combination of magnetic fields and gravitation.

That suggests a Universe which is not cooling off or running down but actually winding itself up, so to speak. Not only that, but – if I understand correctly – the energy flows have been getting more and more concentrated in the process of formation of astronomical objects like galaxies and stars, and in the plasma filaments you have been talking about.

When stars are formed, you start to generate nuclear reactions, fusion reactions, which are a particularly intense form of energy.   

Eric Lerner: In fact, if you simply release cosmology from the Big Bang theory, then one of the things that you learn from the story of cosmic evolution is that it is a process of continually increasing energy flux. In other words, the density of energy flow is continuously increasing. The cosmos is moving further and further away from a state of equilibrium – the state where there are no net energy flows.

This different narrative makes a big difference in terms of how we look at what’s happening on Earth in the year 2020.

JT: How so?

EL: If you look through history, traditionally people looked to the narrative about the Universe as a whole to get an orientation on the situation here on the Earth. Religion reflects this. But today a scientific narrative on the Universe is totally lacking because the Big Bang doesn’t make sense to the average person.

The Fornax Galaxy Cluster as seen through the VST telescope. Source: Wikimedia

By contrast, if you take the no-Big Bang narrative then one thing that becomes apparent is that the universe as a whole has been evolving towards greater energy flows. Of course it’s been known, by biologists and ecologists studying the Earth for decades, that this is true for the biosphere and this is a characteristic of biological evolution.

JT: I suppose you can also see energy density increasing as human technology evolves, for example going from a steam engine to an internal combustion engine, which can produce much more power in a smaller volume. 

EL: If we bring this back to the present, if people had learned the no-Bang history of the Universe instead of the Big Bang history when they were in school, it would be common knowledge that when you get into a global crisis situation, you have to go to higher energy density sources.

And 60 years ago, people knew that meant going to nuclear fusion. Common sense would tell you that this must be the top priority, much greater priority than the 1960s Apollo project, for example. And if fusion had been given the proper priority back at that time, we would have had fusion by now.

JT:  Well, today there is a big fusion project going on, the giant International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor now under construction in France. In my opinion, ITER may be useful as a technology platform and for scientific research purposes, but from the standpoint of realizing fusion as a commercial energy source, I think any sensible person will recognize that it is a dead-end.

Moreover, ITER is consuming resources which could otherwise be used to get us to fusion much, much more quickly. For the roughly 50 billion dollars which are expected to go into ITER, you could finance five hundred projects, each one for one hundred million dollars, or 50 projects for a billion dollars each.

I have written about your project and that of Heinrich Hora, for example, which are vastly more innovative and more promising. These and a number of other innovative approaches to fusion are either not getting funded or what they are getting is just peanuts.

Eric Lerner hard at work on his nuclear fusion venture at LLP Fusion. Photo: LLP Fusion

EL: Well, one of the points we make is that although people think we’ve been spending a lot on the fusion effort, that is not true in relative terms. Even the ITER is a very small research project, in light of the gigantic importance of fusion to free us from the five trillion dollars we spend directly on fossil fuel production and the estimated 10 trillion dollars they cost us a year in total expenses, including indirect expenses.

In fact, fusion research has been chronically underfunded, and this favored an orthodoxy, as in the case of the Big Bang theory. There was a bureaucratic process, where the funding agencies said, essentially, we are going to put all our eggs in one basket.  That began already in the context of the oil crisis. The government had been convinced to increase funding for fusion, but had not been convinced to launch a real crash program, which is what would really be necessary.

It is useful to compare the fusion effort with the Apollo program to put astronauts onto the Moon. Fusion funding did not reach more than four percent of the average yearly Apollo project funding.

The government put 25 times as much annual effort into getting to the Moon as into developing the only feasible dense energy source that could lead humanity forward.

Some scientists and engineers, some of whom subsequently regretted it, gave in to the temptation and said, OK, if you’ve only got this much available, we’ll just go with what seems to be the best stuff. Bureaucratic and other factors dragged us into a rut and at a certain point, the orthodoxy became such that if you didn’t believe in the tokamak, you basically couldn’t get funded.

Now, fortunately, that has changed. Fusion was never separated from technology, in the way cosmology has been. The question is, how do we apply this power that drives the universe to give us power here on Earth.

So eventually we did reach the point where we and others have attracted multiple sources of private funding. The number is changing almost by the week, but now you’ve got something like three dozen companies, some of which are within the tokamak framework – but many of them are like us, pursuing other kinds of devices.

This is not an ideal situation, let me say very clearly. The resources for this should not be coming from the private sector. It is the job of government to fund research.

But this is a step forward. It means that the situation in fusion is not like the situation in cosmology. Even though they are not adequate, funds are being made available. Fusion research is moving in new directions, more than just one. And we at least can discuss the real solution to the problem, which is a crash program for fusion, a crash program being a government-funded program that funds all possible routes to fusion energy. 

This is, in essence, what the industry association we belong to, the Fusion Industry Association, has been advocating.

JT: When you talk about a crash program, I think many people today don’t have a clear idea what is meant by this term.

EL: Yeah, I would say you’re right. It is sort of an engineering jargon term. A crash program is a program where the priority is so high that you don’t choose among methods A, B and C, but you do all of A and B and C and you see one which one gets you there sooner.

The US moon landing was a costly expedition. Image: Wikimedia

That’s what happened, for example, with the Manhattan Project – and to a large extent, also, the Apollo project in the sense that when there were several engineering alternatives, the funding was there to try a number of them at the same time.

When we say a crash program to try everything that is feasible, you’re not going to try things that people can prove are impossible. But right now, we have many routes to fusion that no one can prove are impossible.

The best way, the quickest way and the safest way to get to a goal is to fund everything that is possible and that’s the way to get to fusion. This is the way to get back on the path to higher energy density—the same path that we see in the Universe.

Note: Lerner discusses the importance of the energy density concept further in this video and in a series on the “Cosmic Connection.