Lasers Across the Cherry Orchards

Dr Michael J Forrest: Lasers Across the Cherry Orchards - click to buy ISBN: 978-0-9568557-0-1 Paperback Pages: 150 Photographs: 8 b/w 1 col
Kindle / e-book version: 978-0-9934 073-3-8 - available late July 2016

The task - to confirm Russian claims of temperatures of 10,000,000 degrees in the Russian Tokamak device, a prototype of the Nuclear Fusion Reactor of the future.

The unique true story of a young scientist's part in pioneering work with lasers that led to dramatic cutting edge scientific research by a British team in Moscow, at the height of the "cold war".

From Harwell, next to the famous cherry orchards, to Laboratory Number Two in Moscow, the home of Soviet nuclear weapon's development, this book describes a career enlivened by meetings with clandestine contacts and famous people. Experiences in the Army and Government Communication Headquarters, Cheltenham, and the shadowy presence of the K.G.B. contribute to an eclectic mix.

Synopsis

1969 was a thrilling year, a confident year for mankind. Man walked on the Moon, Concorde made its maiden flight and a generation wallowed in the mud at Woodstock. But this year was also to provide the focus for a unique true story of dramatic cutting edge scientific research at the height of the "cold war" and my privileged involvement as a young physicist.

Some twelve years earlier I had joined a top secret project at Harwell that was to bring the top Nuclear Weapon scientists from the East and West bloc countries together to drive forward the dream of the ultimate energy source - Nuclear Fusion power. The ambitious aim is to mimic the processes that power the Sun in a controlled manner and not in a bomb.

In contrast to the popular image of a white coated scientist standing in front of a blackboard covered with complex Einstein inspired equations: I describe the reality of an experimental research scientist's life. I chart my progress from recruitment, initiation and subsequent development as an internationally recognised research physicist. At the same time I show the human side of scientific research and describe encounters with some famous characters I met in the course of my work and travels. These include Sir Frank Whittle, inventor of the Jet engine, Sir John Cockroft O.M. nuclear pioneer, Professor Sir Rudolph Peierls who had assembled the first Atomic Bomb in Los Alamos. The list even extends to the iconic scientist and writer C.P. Snow and the controversial author Anthony Burgess of 'Clockwork Orange' fame.

Initially the action takes place in the glorious Berkshire and Oxfordshire countryside with its charming Thames side villages and their charismatic pubs, the horse racing stables and the "gallops" on the Downs. Then the action dramatically switches to Moscow at a time when it was at its most forbidding to visitors.

The Russians claimed to be leading the Nuclear Fusion race with temperatures of 10 million degrees in a doughnut shaped device called a 'Tokamak'. This is best described as a magnetic 'bottle' that contains the hot gases just as the Sun achieves the same thing with its own gravity. But these spectacular advances were disputed by the West, whose own devices were lagging behind in their performances.

However in the brand new United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority Culham Laboratory a few miles from Oxford in 1964 I had played a pivotal role in developing a ruby laser light scattering method for measuring these extreme temperatures. With my two colleagues, an American and a Canadian, I drew on clandestine contacts that I had built up with military research laboratories to build a laser of sufficient power and together we developed a complex optical scheme to successfully demonstrate the technique was viable. We could measure these temperatures of tens of millions of degrees with total confidence.

So impressed by the success of this major breakthrough by the British in measurement techniques was the Chief Soviet Scientist Academician Lev Artsimovitch, that he invited the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to send a team of scientists to the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow to confirm their controversial results.

At the height of the "cold war" this proposal was a daring one. The political and diplomatic implications were considerable but both sides could expect large benefits from the venture: for the Russians confirmation of their "fantastic numbers" and for the British, a spectacular field test for the "laser scattering technique" we had been applying to plasmas for the past five years. The U.KA.E.A. Board, the Foreign Office and the then Minister of Technology, Wedgwood Benn approved this far reaching collaboration.

After a planning visit to Moscow at the invitation of The Soviet State Committee by myself and technical expert Peter Wilcock, we designed and built a complex experiment in three and a half months. This astonishing logistical feat was due in no small way by the goodwill and strenuous efforts of colleagues in the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. The British team of four Nicol Peacock (leader), Derek Robinson, Peter Wilcock and myself were joined by a young Russian Volodiya Sannikov.

Living in a flat outside the Kurchatov Institute, we were subject to the rigors of everyday life, enlivening our diet with supplies from the hard currency (beryozka) shop. But we also experienced many acts of kindness from the Russian "man in the street" to even Soviet generals. By courtesy of the local Communist Party the British team enjoyed the privilege of visits to the Bolshoi to see Swan Lake and the Sleeping Beauty ballets, the Opera the Kremlin Armoury and the Russian State Circus in its original quarters. I experienced some adventurous cross country skiing with the T3 team; evading troublesome moose and nearly trespassing on highly secret installations and surviving hazardous tumbles down icy hills, not suited for narrow skis.

While the KGB did not cause the visitors any problems there were disturbing indications of their presence which were only too obvious and reflected the nature of the political system of that era.

With enthusiastic support from the Soviet Tokamak scientists and technicians and long working days the experiment was soon up and running. Most of the potential technical problems had been ironed out in the preparative stage by meticulous and imaginative planning. But there were to be two major problems that surfaced to almost wreck the whole enterprise, however some the contingencies we had built in saved the day.

These were anxious times, but within four months our team recorded the first absolute measurements of the Tokamak's temperatures of 10,000,000 degrees and higher - confirming all the Russian claims. The news was flashed across to the UK and then to the USA. Immediately the Americans modified all their experiments to the Russian design and in fact all the world researchers followed, causing a huge surge in interest in Fusion research.

Dr Michael J Forrest: Lasers Across the Cherry Orchards A curious Peer in the House of Lords on congratulating the British Team for their success in Moscow, asked how one measured a temperature of 10,000,000 degrees. "I suppose they used a very long thermometer" was the imaginative reply.

Our scientific coup in Moscow was to lead to a dramatic extension in my scientific and geographic horizons. Firstly a consultancy role for the Swedish Fusion centre, Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. This was followed by Euratom establishing a mobility agreement to make it easy for scientists to work in other European Fusion Laboratories. This lead to me travelling to Rome with my family and me working on the Plasma Focus Device with Laser Diagnostics we had developed in Culham.

With the UKAEA entering a commercial phase I was put in charge of a 'Key' team charged with developing advanced plasma diagnostics for the Fusion research program and for commercial exploitation. This involved travel to Japan on what was essentially a flag waving exercise with one of our brightest young theorists. The cultivation of Arab contacts lead to an order from Col. Gaddafi's El Fatah University in Tripoli, Libya to supply a complete Plasma Physics Experiment. A senior electrical engineer and myself made several visits to plan and set up this equipment, enjoying many aspects of "Arab" life in the process.

Europe responded to the Russian dramatic success after some political procrastination, by building the biggest Tokamak in the world on the Culham site. I shared my time on this high achieving project with managing the UKAEA's own Key team on advanced diagnostics.

JET was the first experimental Fusion device to produce net power out and demonstrate the feasibility of this approach to Nuclear Fusion. In an active retirement I was able to make contributions that lead to the most advanced Laser Scattering diagnostic in the world on the Culham MAST experiment and also to the next dramatic phase of this challenging technology.

The remarkable success of the Tokamak has lead to an unprecedented international collaboration between such diverse countries as South Korea, India, the U.S.A. and all the major European countries. This has resulted in the building of the ITER device in Caderache, France, which will act as a precursor to the world's first Nuclear Fusion Reactor.

Without doubt this will provide the prime energy source for future generations. The successful operation of these 21st century world saving devices will depend on probing diagnostic laser beams in the manner we developed back in the 1960s.