The Quest Research News from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, mailed with the July 10 PAW, brought to mind a seminal event for the lab.
Early in 1951, I was a junior researcher at the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, on leave from my graduate studies in Princeton. I had followed my physics professor John Wheeler to Los Alamos to work on the development of the hydrogen bomb. When Princeton astrophysics professor Lyman Spitzer stopped for a visit after a Colorado ski holiday, he was eager to share a new idea on how to harness thermonuclear power for practical power generation.
Because of some security-clearance glitch, Spitzer’s admission to the lab was delayed, and he was stewing about it. So I and fellow Princeton graduate student John Toll *52 were dispatched to have lunch with Spitzer and calm him down. Over lunch, Spitzer told us why he thought a torus twisted into a figure eight might hold a hot plasma of deuterium long enough for thermonuclear “burning” to take place.
From this idea was born half of a new research enterprise, Project Matterhorn, established at Princeton less than six months later. Spitzer’s half was to be devoted to thermonuclear power. The other half, headed by Wheeler, was to pursue thermonuclear explosions. I have it on good authority that something like the following exchange took place in the office of Princeton’s chief financial officer, Roy Woodrow. Woodrow: “Your new enterprise needs a name.” Spitzer: “How about Project Matterhorn, symbolizing challenge and also reflective of the fact that I conceived the idea while skiing?” Wheeler: “OK, Lyman, you can name the project if I get to name your device. Let’s call it a stellarator.” Wheeler then headed Matterhorn B (for bomb), and Spitzer headed Matterhorn S (for stellarator).
As it turned out, controlled fusion power posed a far greater challenge than a fusion bomb. The first thermonuclear explosion occurred in late 1952 and Matterhorn B shut down soon after. Matterhorn S continues today as PPPL.