The Fusionista: PPPL’s MINDS at center of plot in TV’s NCIS-LA



Fusion and its spinoffs are so fascinating, it’s easy to imagine why these subjects can so easily capture the public imagination. Sheldon has been known to talk magnetic fusion on CBS-TV’s The Big Bang Theory and the National Ignition Facility’s inertial confinement laser complex was featured in the recent “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

Now, a technology that engineers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (shown in top photo) developed from basic research, a nuclear detection system called MINDS, has figured at the center of an episode of NCIS-Los Angeles. Episode 8, titled “Fallout,” continued the show’s consistent plot pattern of pitting a crack crew of investigators against evildoers. The show, its title an acronym of “Naval Criminal Investigative Service,” offers a potent brew that combines the genres of police detective story and military drama.  The series premiered on the CBS network in 2009.

Meredith Jacobs, writing about the Nov. 12 episode on, an online entertainment news site, reported that a bad guy in the episode accessed a computer at the U.S. Department of Energy and obtained the locations of MINDS devices. “If terrorists knew where those devices were, they’d know where to transport bombs,” Jacobs wrote. The storyline develops to involve stolen federal secrets, international relations with Russia, and a chase to recover computer drives. In the end, the champions of good, the NCIS team, triumph and the secrets of MINDS are secured.

“It is nice to know that MINDS as featured on the NCIS-LA show now joins the ranks of other fusion-related technologies that have appeared in Spider Man, Iron Man, and Star Trek,” said Charles Gentile, who led the development of MINDS at PPPL with a team of engineers and was delighted to hear of MINDS’ television debut. “Clearly the imagination of Hollywood is intrigued with fusion technologies.”

I wrote about MINDS for the first time in 2009 when I worked as the science writer for Princeton University’s Office of Communications. I remember the dramatic story related by the team of how the complex technology was developed over many years. The “Miniature Integrated Nuclear Detection System” (MINDS) was created by the engineers while working on decommissioning the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor, PPPL’s legendary experimental device that produced world records for fusion and high temperatures. After 9/11, the developers of MINDS realized the techniques they had developed for determining the identity and amount of extremely minute levels of elements in TFTR could be used as a defensive measure to detect and identify nuclear materials. The simple, portable device identifies materials through their characteristic energy signals, as unique as fingerprints and is now used in ports and transportation hubs to protect the public.

At the time I was first writing about MINDS, John Ritter, director of Princeton University’s Office of Technology Licensing and Intellectual Property, told me: “This technology may provide a method to protect the public from different kinds of threats. Viewed from that standpoint, we are very excited about MINDS.”

It is also exciting to know that Hollywood gets it, too.




Fusionista Kitta MacPherson is the director of communications at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and an award-winning science writer. 



13. November 2013 by Kitta MacPherson
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