The Lex Fridman podcast — This January, renowned podcaster and MIT research scientist Lex Fridman interviewed Professor Dennis Whyte, the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering at MIT, a professor in the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, and the Director of the MIT Plasma Science & Fusion Center. Whyte's research interests focus on accelerating the development of magnetic fusion energy systems.
Fridman kicked off the interview titled Is cold fusion possible? with a single question: Do you think down the line somewhere in the far distance it is possible to achieve fusion at a low temperature? Whyte responded that, although it’s unlikely, it is not impossible. He continues to stay abreast of developments in the field of cold fusion, more commonly called LENR, or low-energy nuclear reactions.
Whyte remains interested in the field because low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR) exist. “We know this, because these come from the weak reaction, the weak nuclear force,” says Whyte. “At this point, as a scientist, you always keep yourself open, but you always demand proof.” Nevertheless, Whyte did not mention the electron screening effect that is thought to partially explain the interactions needed to enable LENR.
The conversation explored what is known in physics, including Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell’s equations, which describe how matter moves around and how electromagnetism works. But many unknowns remain.
Whyte relays the story of Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of the nucleus in 1908, which led to the realization that matter is almost all empty space. His breakthrough opened a whole new world of possibilities, including lasers — but it took 20 years before people put together that fusion was the process powering stars. He didn’t mention how closed-minded Rutherford was, trying to discredit Wendt and Irions for their 1922 work on Helium production from a metal hydride exploding wire, a technique still used today.
“There are always nagging things at the edges of science. We pat ourselves on the back and think we have everything under control,” says Whyte. “If you fast forward to today, we still don’t know what makes up 90% of the mass of the universe. So, the search for dark matter, right? What is it? We still haven’t discovered it yet. All it tells us is that we shouldn't have hubris about the ideas that we understand everything. And, you know, who knows what the next major intellectual insight will be about how the universe functions?”
It is nice to see the "known unknowns" in our universe have expanded and it demands we follow up the "That's weird" signals nature offers us! (more)