Humans have an enduring fascination for the sun. Understandable. The center of the universe, the flame in the sky around which all life revolves. We worshiped him, lifting our hands and faces up to seek his warmth. We are hopeless without him. Without the sun, darkness of life and spirit occurs. We sunbathe and grill them, flocking to the beach, covered in oil, literally toasted. We need it for things to grow and sustain life, and so have tried in various ways to harness its amazing power. This has produced mixed results. On the plus side of the ledger–solar! As an example. On the other hand, can anyone forget Doc Ock? “The power of the sun in the palm of my hand!” Okay, hold on to the phone on that one.
The holy grail for channeling solar power has always been nuclear fusion. In very simple terms, the goal is to generate endless clean and sustainable energy by creating a series of nuclear fusion reactions inside highly complex structures known, logically, as nuclear fusion reactors. The game is to blast the bejesus of the lighter nuclei so hard, with so much force, that they melt into the heavier nuclei, releasing energy. This, scientifically speaking, is not a walk in the park. Physics, engineering, precision brought to this incredibly complex frontier is next level.
NIF just did. The National Ignition Facility, located at Lawrence Livermore Labs in California, recently achieved a result in which the energy return (output) was greater than the energy input. There is still a long way to go, but this is very important news, certainly more important than any say, where the reality TV star is currently on vacation for the holidays.
Below, scientists are depicted with a mixture of various tools in this large collection of moving parts. Elizabeth Dzinitis with timing targets (many of which vaporize in the shot), and at close range, Patrick Crowley first closely examines the target and then, dabs the adhesive with… a strand of an eyebrow hair.
I was fortunate enough to visit the NIF twice, several years ago, when under the guidance of the visionary Ed Moses, a physicist who understands the value of a photograph, and the fact that scientists cannot work endlessly behind the curtain, pulled out a mysterious white paper. occasionally about joules and getting factors and hope the public remains interested. Science is interesting. Science is cool. Science is very difficult to photograph.
I mentioned that the power to blow up an atom cannot be achieved so easily. NIF does it with lasers (there are other types of fusion reactors). But NIF is laser based. 192 of them. It stretches across a laser bay, I don’t know exactly but you could probably play some soccer in the building. When teams took the “shot”, this laser was pointed at a pencil eraser-sized target, which was suspended in the center of the target room about ten meters wide. An explosion occurred. 500 trillion watts of power, generated in about 20 billion seconds. I mean, I love The Rock, but Black Adam, step aside. (Although enjoyed the movie!)
The target chamber, seen below, was designed to overpower light, and was blackened by all the blasts from the attempted shots. It used to look pristine and shiny, like the one below, which is what I first glimpsed. This giant metallic golf ball is so shiny I only use one flash. naked tube. Bouncing everywhere.
But not anymore. The nuclear explosion in the room not only darkened it, but also dripped radiation. This is where I have to go. On the elevator ride, Dave Bower, the man I got in with said, as we got on, “Joe, not too many people get the chance to do this!” Excellent and enthusiastic guide. Helped me out endlessly in there, as I had to work my camera through thick plastic, gloves, hazmat type suits, forced air, and protective shields. And then tried its best to focus the damn camera. But I have to laugh. In my head I was like, “Yeah, go into the radiation field! I love my job!”
Climb into the target room below.
Arrived at target with John Bower. Given the heavy weight of plastic that wraps around my camera, by the way, I’m definitely going old fashioned when it comes to lighting. Knocked two heavy-duty strobes down through the portal into the room, which was encased in plastic. Also dropped the sensor eye. Trigger everything with one Nikon Speedlight.
Another view from the room. And, as you can see, it is no longer shiny and new. It went through the impact of hundreds of trial explosions.
For this view, I had to tap and slide one of the access portals filling the target’s space.
This is where some of the fun begins. I shot 16mm fisheye, and had to stretch my arms all the way out to try to get that super wide lens through the portal where my lamp was dropped. In doing so, my protective suit slipped off my wrists and my skin touched the interior of the room. This was of course observed, and as soon as I came out, that area of my arm had to be swabbed and, as I recall, a skin sample taken. I had to have urine tests for the next three days, etc. About a month or so downstream I received notification that I had received no significant radiation exposure.
Definitely one of the most unusual and thrilling assignments I’ve ever had. A window into a complexity beyond my imagination. Scientists grapple with the sun’s primordial power. Not for the faint of heart. To have faith in this process, which is ongoing, to borrow from Matt Damon in the film, The Martian, they have to “get deep into this”.
So it was an honor to be there, especially with my incredibly talented crew. Drew Gurian, Michael Cali, and Mike Grippi.
And I, I keep shining in the dark. 😉
What a story. An excellent opportunity to photograph hard science at work, something I’ve always loved, and continue to look forward to. In some ways, it symbolizes the life and career of a photographer. By having a camera with us, we are often allowed to see what many others cannot. We have an extraordinary window into so many different realms of human experience. A blessing from this effort.
And another epitome of the photographer’s life? Nat Geo killed the story. Never published frames. It doesn’t matter. I have the photo! And still standing, shooting work, camera in hand.