PRINCETON, N.J. — In a scientific complex on 88 bucolic acres near here, some astonishingly talented people are advancing a decades-long project to create a sun on Earth. When — not if; when — decades hence they and collaborators around the world succeed, their achievement will be more transformative of human life than any prior scientific achievement.
The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s (PPPL) focus — magnetic fusion research — began at the university in 1951. It was grounded in the earlier work of a European scientist then living in Princeton. Einstein’s theory that mass could be converted into energy had been demonstrated six years earlier near Alamogordo, N.M., by fission — the splitting of atoms, which released the energy that held the atoms together. By the 1950s, however, attention was turning to an unimaginably more promising method of releasing energy from transforming matter — the way the sun does, by fusion.