The Fusionista: A front page evening
(Above: This poster with cutouts shaped like a light bulb and letters was used to signal successful fusion shots to observers on Dec. 9, 1993)
The fascinating science that is at the heart of everything at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) keeps hundreds of staff members busy. For the past week or so, though, with the approach of a major anniversary, Lab matters have seemed especially charged.
On Dec. 9, 1993, a team of researchers at PPPL produced world record-breaking levels of fusion energy in a one-of-a-kind experimental device called the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR). I was on-site, too, not as a member of the Lab staff, but as a science reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey’s largest newspaper.
On that long ago evening at PPPL, I had serious competition. I was one of a handful of reporters who had shown an interest in PPPL for some time who was invited to cover the event. Others in the general press would be drawn by our stories and a public television video to cram into a news conference the next day for this world-class story. I stood in the main lobby of the Lab’s main administration building and met two other reporters, and we moved to the auditorium to wait for news from the TFTR control room. A monitor in the auditorium displayed images of activity from the packed control room via a camera located there. Ron Davidson, PPPL’s director at the time, and Dale Meade, then the Lab’s deputy director, gave animated play-by-plays to the auditorium audience of what could be seen on the television interspersed with viewgraphs on fusion. In addition to the press, staff members of PPPL – some of whom brought their children – perched there, taking it in.
The late Malcolm Browne of the New York Times was covering the experiment. He had earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his bulletins from the Vietnam War. When I met him that evening, he was enjoying a grand second act as a front-page science writer. He was quiet and nice. I also spoke as we worked with Boyce Rensberger of the Washington Post. His book, How the World Works, with its deft explanations of formidable concepts such as Einstein’s theories of relativity and the field of quantum mechanics, made it a go-to source for science writers. He was outgoing and nice.
Any story from this event loomed as a wonderful capper for my year – one already loaded with stories of worldwide interest. In June 1993, eight years into my stint as my newspaper’s science editor, I wrote about Princeton Professor Andrew Wiles’ wondrous announcement that he proved a 300-year-old math problem known as Fermat’s Last Theorem. And, on October 13, 1993, only two months before the fusion experiment, I trailed Princeton Professor Joseph Taylor the day the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in physics to Taylor and Russell Hulse. Hulse was a former graduate student of Taylor’s who had risen to be a physicist at PPPL. They were honored for their 1974 discovery of a new type of pulsar, a find that opened up new possibilities for the study of gravitation.
On that night at PPPL, I was on edge. I knew I could report and write the story. The problem rested with my computer. The newspaper was experimenting with portable computers in those days and my model was a doozy. Static electricity brought about by a movement as slight as a shuffle on an office carpet provoked tremors in the casing and blackouts on the screen. Even if you managed to write a story and hold on to it, the device’s manual phone hook-up – a black plastic molded doodad that fit very imperfectly on an end of the handset of a standard rotary telephone – worked erratically.
I also stewed over the fact that I knew many of the scientists involved in this experiment. I liked them. Journalists are supposed to be emotionally removed so they can fully represent the public interest and report objectively. In my heart, I realized, I was rooting for the PPPL team.
The reporters covering the event had editors waiting at other ends of the phone line who expected a full-fledged news story as soon as a breakthrough was achieved. We all worked for morning newspapers with tight evening deadlines. As the hours wore on, my colleagues remained calm. In my case, jubilation and tension battled for control of my emotions. I looked forward to the possibility that the researchers would pull it off and worried about the opposite outcome. I dreaded using my computer. We wondered aloud whether the results would be announced in time for us to report them. To pull off writing such a complex story at the verge of the newspaper’s print deadline, each of us had composed “A matter” – the background material that gives the story context – ahead of time. From time to time, we scurried to different corners of the lobby and worked so that when the news came, all we would need would be the lede (the first sentence or, sometimes, paragraph) and a quote. I, for one, did not want to have to explain the intricacies of a fusion reaction on the fly!
Twice I watched the A-matter I had written on my computer disappear as if the words had been written in smoke. The third version held. Just in time for deadline, as if the research team had been prompted, the scientists achieved their record.
It took me two attempts to successfully send my story over a telephone. The transmission hissed and twanged, my words transferred in stages to bits, electronic pulses and sound waves. The story relayed a remarkable scientific achievement. I knew I had spread the word to hundreds of thousands of readers. Now they would know.
I was exhausted from the cliffhanger evening. I was happy for the scientists.
We made our deadlines. And we all made the front page.
Fusionista Kitta MacPherson is the director of communications at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and an award-winning science writer.