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Telescopes and space missions

A fusion of minds

31 Jan 2013

Mystery still surrounds the visit of the astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell to the Soviet Union in 1963. But his collaboration – and that of other British scientists – eased geopolitical tensions at the height of the Cold War and paved the way for today's global ITER fusion project, as Richard Corfield explains

A fusion of minds

“It was the morning of my hundredth birthday. I shaved the final mirror-disc of old tired face under the merciless glare of the bathroom lighting. It was all very well telling oneself that Humphrey Bogart had that sort of face; but he also had a hairpiece, half a million dollars a year and a stand-in for the rough bits. I dabbed a soda-stick at the razor nicks. In the magnifying mirror it looked like a white rocket landing on the uncharted side of the moon.”

Len Deighton’s classic novel Billion Dollar Brain was written in 1966. It captures perfectly the cloying fug of Cold War paranoia that infected the childhood of anyone older than the age of 40 today. The knowledge that, at any given moment, serried ranks of silos from Sverdlovsk to South Dakota were poised to spew forth missiles that would reduce Europe to a radioactive wasteland was a dreary undercurrent to life in the 1960s.

And then there was television, which featured a steady diet of spy thrillers gleefully highlighting one horror after another: smallpox viruses carried in hen eggs; secret biomedical research complexes in the back-woods of Siberia ready to brainwash kidnapped American soldiers; computers primed to seize control of the nuclear trigger at a second’s notice and cut their human makers out of the decision loop. All of it provided the two subtexts that defined the Cold War: science and technology.

So how close were these fictional accounts to the truth? A fascinating insight into the reality of the situation comes from the diaries of the celebrated astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell, who died last August aged 98. He had transferred most of his papers to the University of Manchester several years before his death, but felt that some parts relating to his scientific links with the Soviet Union in the 1960s were still sensitive and instructed they remain closed during his lifetime. Those sections – now released by the university – reveal Lovell’s deep commitment to international research collaboration, even in the face of stupendous barriers erected by the combatants in the Cold War.

A Lovell playing field

Having worked tirelessly through the late 1940s and 1950s setting up a radio-telescope facility at Jodrell Bank in rural Cheshire, Lovell had spent three weeks in the summer of 1963 travelling in the Soviet Union. While international scientific collaboration is an everyday occurrence in the 21st century, Lovell’s trip beyond the Iron Curtain was an unusual affair at the time of the Cold War. Coming just eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis – the closest the world has ever got to outright global thermonuclear war – the visit was perhaps an unlikely one for such a leading scientific figure. But Lovell was passionate in his pursuit of scientific understanding and was happy to accept his invitation from the Soviet Academy ofSciences.

Yet Lovell’s visit affected more than just science, for he had played, perhaps rather unexpectedly, a key role in the Cuban crisis. In 1962 Lovell had been told that, according to British intelligence, the Soviets had mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launchers targeted on London and that there was a seven-minute window between launch and the arrival of the missiles. With the Royal Air Force’s primary missile-defence warning system at Fylingdales in Yorkshire over-budget and overdue as a result of strike action, Lovell was asked by military officials if Jodrell Bank was technically able to detect the launch of the missiles. He replied that it was, but after wondering aloud how helpful any such advance notice would be, Lovell was informed that a seven-minute warning would achieve a lot, giving Britain crucial time to launch fighter planes and mount a retaliatory strikeback. “At least a million people in London could be saved and the Bomber Force could be scrambled,” he was told.

And so – throughout much of 1962 and on into 1963 – Jodrell Bank became Britain’s early-warning system in the event of a sneak attack by the Soviet Union. The telescope was simply the only instrument in the West that could detect the launch of nuclear missiles from the USSR and there were good reasons to be optimistic about Jodrell’s far-seeing eye. In April 1957 it had been the only ground-based facility in the world that could locate the rocket that the Soviets had used to launch Sputnik 1. In 1958 it had been the telescope that tracked America’s first satellite, Explorer 1. Such was the importance of the telescope that a special telephone with a distinctively coloured green handset was even installed in Lovell’s home to allow Britain’s Chief of the Air Staff to tell Lovell if an attack was imminent and to hand the telescope over to the RAF officers whom he had personally trained to detect launches.

And yet, Lovell’s posting as point man on the front line of the West’s nuclear defence hid another side of his character – his fervent belief in the collaborative nature of science. Throughout the late 1950s and on into the 1960s, Lovell was a regular host to Soviet guests who would come to work at Jodrell Bank and stay in the nearby family home at Swettenham in Cheshire. Slumbering among the grassy knolls and sleepy copses of north-west England, Jodrell Bank proved to be the unlikely location where western and eastern bloc science met. And contrary to the Cold War techno-thrillers being written at the time, nobody batted an eyelid. If anything, the British government thought Lovell’s planned trip to the USSR might be a good way of extracting information from the Soviets.

The Eupatoria enigma

Lovell’s visit to the USSR in 1963 was not his first journey beyond the Iron Curtain. He had been there five years previously and was to travel there again in 1975 and 1976. It is quite clear from his diaries of these trips that Lovell was well treated when in the hands of his scientific hosts. As Lovell happily confided to his 1963 notebook, “The president [of the Soviet Academy of Sciences] said that a country’s scientific effort was a most significant contribution to the standing of a country in the eyes of other nations. He was good enough to illustrate this by pointing out that Jodrell had enormously contributed and added to the prestige of the UK in the USSR.”

All of Lovell’s trips were devoted to the development of collaborative interactions between the two countries. However, there is an enigma surrounding his 1963 visit to the city of Eupatoria on the Black Sea coast. In a last-minute addition to an already busy scientific tour, Lovell was taken to see the Soviet Union’s new radio-telescope and space-tracking facility in the Crimea. It included a powerful radar transmitter for contacting space probes that was never operated at an elevation of less than 15° because of “the intense beam of radiation being a danger to human beings”, as Lovell later termed it.

Lovell was deeply impressed by the sophistication of the technology and, on his return to Moscow, was quizzed about his plans for the development of a larger telescope at Jodrell Bank. As Lovell wrote in a 2008 memorandum that was released last year alongside the diaries of his trip, the Soviets made it clear to him that if he elected to stay in the USSR and build the facility there, then they would give him the money. Such an offer was not, however, the flattering trans-national intellectual poaching it would be considered nowadays. After all, there was still a Cold War on. Lovell’s reply was immediate and unambiguous: “I am an Englishman and I wish to remain in England.”

On Monday 15 July 1963 Lovell flew back to Britain. But after arriving back in Swettenham, he became unwell and remained under the weather for some weeks. “It was as though all life had suddenly turned to dust and ashes,” Lovell wrote in his 2008 memorandum. “The family could do nothing for me nor the doctors”. Lovell recovered only after joining his daughter Susan and son-in-law John on a holiday in Ireland, which restored him to his normal robust health. “At dawn with the boat sailing up the river to Cork I suddenly began to feel normal,” he wrote.

So what are we to make of his sudden illness?

When Lovell was debriefed by the Ministry of Defence in the months after his recovery, he was told that the illness might have been caused by a Soviet attempt to remove his memory of the recruitment offer and what he had seen at the Eupatoria facility. The method used, the unnamed official speculated, had been radiation. When this story was originally told in 1984 by Lovell and his biographer Dudley Saward, “radiation” was widely interpreted to mean ionizing radiation. But the Jodrell Bank astronomer Tim O’Brien, who is also the observatory’s public-relations officer, says that what was really meant was simply “electromagnetic radiation”.

Although O’Brien admits that no-one knows whether the Soviets really did try to brainwash Lovell, his son Bryan favours a more mundane explanation. “My father was so tired that his mighty constitution took quite a while to recover; he needed a holiday,” he told Physics World. Referring to the “huge load” his father had borne in completing his telescope, Bryan Lovell thinks that the added responsibility of it playing a key military role, coupled with his Russian visit, had simply taken a toll. “For me the more likely explanation is that father was simply exhausted – and that gels with the account that he wrote in the contemporaneous diary of the 1963 trip, in which you will find nothing untoward, but plenty of fascinating science.”

On 9 August 1963 an important part of Lovell’s secret burden was lifted when he was flown by the RAF to Fylingdales as part of a handover of early-warning responsibilities that took place that autumn. From then on, if he looked east, he could give his undistracted attention to collaboration with his Soviet colleagues and friends – and deal purely with astronomy matters.

Fusing relations

Lovell was impressed by the Soviets’ technology and they made it clear that if he elected to stay in the USSR, they would give him the money to build a larger telescope there

One person who agrees that Lovell was unlikely to have been brainwashed is Mike Forrest, a physicist who collaborated with scientists from the Soviet Union on nuclear fusion during the Cold War. “It just flies in the face of my experience of working with the Russians,” recalls Forrest, who at the time was based at the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s laboratory in Culham, Oxfordshire. In the 1960s the lab led the country’s efforts in studying potential practical applications of fusion power, including its use as a possible source of cheap, plentiful and clean energy – the philosopher’s stone of energy production.

Forrest was a member of a major British post-war experiment called the Zero-Energy Toroidal (or Thermonuclear) Assembly, or ZETA, which was the world’s first large-scale fusion machine when it opened in 1957. It was a doughnut-shaped toroidal device about 3 m in diameter containing a hot plasma, in which a powerful magnet was used to induce an electric current inside the ionized gas. The current generates its own magnetic field that causes the plasma particles to be attracted to each other, effectively making it contract – an effect known as “Z-pinching” (the z referring to the current travelling axially in the z-direction). A series of secondary magnets ringed the torus, with the two external magnetic fields combining to create a helical field that compressed and stabilized the plasma.

The idea of the device was that it could heat the plasma to such a high temperature that light elements in it would fuse together and release huge amounts of energy. The holy grail of such technology is that the ratio of output energy to input energy should be greater than one. ZETA, based at Harwell in Oxfordshire, was an experimental device that served, in Forrest’s words, as a “proof-of-principle” experiment. Soon after ZETA was switched on, it produced a burst of neutrons – the most obvious output of nuclear fusion – that amazed and heartened its designers, though the results were hyped (some would say over-hyped) to suggest that Britain was on the cusp of a fusion-technology breakthrough. But when it was discovered that the neutron bursts were not the result of a nascent fusion reaction, spirits slumped at Harwell and the prospect of nuclear fusion seemed as far away as ever.

It was soon thereafter that the Culham researchers began their unusual liaison with Soviet scientists, who had been pursuing their own line of research at the Kurchatov Institute on the outskirts of Moscow. Under the leadership of Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov, the Soviets had designed the “tokamak” – a different kind of fusion device in which the high-temperature plasma is confined by magnetic fields in the shape of a torus. But whereas the magnetic field created by the toroidal current in ZETA was smaller than the external magnetic field from solenoidal coils wrapped around it, the reverse is the case in a tokamak. In other words, the applied field is stronger than the magnetic field caused by the current in thetorus.

This may seem a subtle point – but it made all the difference. From early on in their development, it became clear that tokamaks were superior to other fusion devices in their ability to confine the plasma. However, one thing that the Soviets had not been able to do as well as their British counterparts was to accurately measure the temperature of their plasma. Indeed, the Harwell scientists’ ability to do so, which involved the use of lasers and Thomson scattering, was one of many successes that emerged from ZETA in spite of its failure to achieve fusion.

Forrest, who was one of the British researchers involved in developing this laser technique, was therefore sent together with four other colleagues to the Kurchatov Institute in 1969 to help measure plasma temperatures in the Soviets’ new breed of tokamak reactors. The team made four separate trips, each lasting about six weeks, between April and December of that year.

There were many challenges to overcome, not least the differing voltages between the two countries and the notorious instability of the Moscow power supply. Perhaps more so than with Lovell, there were concerns from Forrest’s contacts in the intelligence community about his work in Russia. Forrest had access to sensitive knowledge, which meant that he and his colleagues – like Lovell – had to be careful what they said and to whom. And yet, Forrest insists, the British researchers were handled well. “All scientists, whether Soviet or Western were treated with total respect,” he says.

The path to international collaboration

The temperature measurements were highly successful and led to the world fusion community switching to tokamaks. But just as significant were the strong links forged between British and Soviet fusion researchers in the depths of the Cold War. The collaboration proved that it was possible for science – and scientific research in particular – to diffuse tensions between geopolitical rivals. Getting researchers to work together for a common purpose was a relatively uncontroversial matter that leaders from both sides could easily agree on.

Indeed, the fusion collaboration forged in the 1960s ultimately led to the creation of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. ITER emerged from the Geneva Summit in November 1985 when the US and Soviet presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev agreed that their nations would join forces on fusion science. These were the same unlikely bed-fellows who did so much to initiate the scaling down of the world’s nuclear arsenals. Gorbachev was in a strong position since his country was so far ahead of any other in the tokamak field and it says much for his statesmanship that he was willing to share his country’s technology. In fact, the current ITER instrument, which is being built near Cadarache in the Maritime Alps of southern France, is a tokamak design.

ITER is a practical attempt to prove that ideas from plasma physics can be translated into full-scale electricity-producing fusion power plants, and the project has since expanded to include China, the EU, Japan and South Korea as well as Russia and the US. No tokamak has previously managed to produce more energy than has been put in, but ITER is designed to generate 500 MW of output power from 50 MW of input power. The first plasma is expected to be produced in 2020 with the first real working fusion power plants coming – if all goes well – some 20–30 years after that.

When – and if – that happens, historians will be able to trace that success back to those early collaborations between Britain and the Soviet Union, and, in part, to the legacy of Sir Bernard Lovell’s radio telescope that was used as the earliest of early-warning systems. Its importance in maintaining world peace cannot be underestimated, for a single slip at that time and, as Len Deighton’s laconic hero put it, “every alarm in the whole world will blow, and four minutes later, nobody is going to be around”.

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