Michel Laberge: How synchronized hammer strikes could generate nuclear fusion


Michel Laberge is founder and chief scientist of ‘General Fusion’.


Fossil fuels are currently our major energy source, since they are convenient and cost effective. Michel suggest nuclear power – it is energy dense, reliably produces power, and creates no CO2. Fission is currently the most common type of nuclear power, but fusion would be safer since the radioactive waste is very short term and there is no risk of meltdown. The fuel could be extracted from the ocean, and power us for billions of years.

Fusion is difficult to pull off – the 2 nucleii need to be thrown together so fast that they overcome their electrostatic repulsion, which can only be done at 150 million degrees. This heat is the limiting factor that makes fusion difficult. Some ways that have been proposed are

  • Magnetic fusion: charged plasma is suspended in a ring of magnets shaped like a donut, where it is heated to fusion temperatures.
  • Laser fusion: a ball of matter is compressed by lasers from all directions. As it compresses it heats quickly.

Plenty of people will dismiss fusion as purely theoretical, but fusion is progressing to become more and more practical. The research has been growing at a rate similar to Moore’s law – increasing by a factor of 10 each decade (ie: developing 10 times faster than the decade before it). The science needed to build a fusion reactor is now close, but political will is now slowing us down.

Fusion is criticised as being expensive – research costing about 1 billion dollars a year, but again Moore’s law was also expensive. The technology needed to get an internet-enabled smartphone cost 1,000 billion dollars. Subsidies to fossil fuel and renewable energy industries cost 650,000 billion per year. To solve the problem of fusion would be cheap and important by comparison.

Michel did not have the resources of the large labs, so needed a cheaper solution. He criticises laser and magnetic fusion as very large and expensive, and find it difficult to contain or use the fusion energy. The neutrons shoot at high speeds and high temperature and can damage the machines – it is as if containing and using the high energy neutrons was added as an afterthought rather than the goal.

Michel investigated Magnetised Target Fusion (MTF). In MTF, you fill a vat with liquid metal, then spin it to form a vortex in the middle. Pistons on the outside of the vat then compress the metal, where it gets hotter and begins fusing. It has advantages over laser and magnetic

  • the liquid metal absorbs the energy of fused neutrons, preventing damage to walls.
  • The liquid metal heats up, which can then be run through a heat exchanger and used to create energy.
  • Most of the energy comes from steam powered pistons, which is far cheaper than magnets or lasers.

Unfortunately MTF didn’t work: the plasma cools faster than the heat of compression, so it didn’t do anything. The improvement was to make the piston into an anvil and hammer. The pistons will accelerate and then smash into an anvil, to push all the energy into the liquid metal in one blow. This created some neutrons, which were enough for Michel to get $50 million and hire a larger team to develop the concept further. 14 hammers will be aligned around a small sphere, and the impacts need to be coordinated with precise electronics. If they fire 1 impact per second, it can produce about 100MW of electricity.

Fusion is coming – it has been done by large labs, and now smaller ones like Michel’s are showing it can be done.


Richard Ledgett: The NSA responds to Edward Snowden’s TED Talk

Speakers: Richard Ledgett – deputy director of the National Security Administration (NSA).

Interviewed by Chris Anderson – curator and current owner of TED talks with a background in journalism.


Chris Anderson interviews Richard Ledgett of NSA, in response to Ed Snowden’s talk https://tedsummaries.com/2014/03/30/edward-snowden-heres-how-we-take-back-the-internet/. I have tried to summarise, with Chris’ questions in bold, and Richard’s response afterwards.

What did you make of Snowden’s original talk?

There were some kernels of truth in Snowden’s talk, but plenty of untruths. The openness concerns raised are an important conversation being made at the moment.

Did Snowden have other avenues to reveal his concerns?

He could have talked to his supervisor, or the inspector-generals. Richard disputes that Snowden was a whistleblower in the conventional sense. However, Chris responds that contractors are not as protected, nor were previous whistleblowers treated well by the NSA.

How did Snowden put lives at risk?

Snowden revealed NSA’s capabilities, in a way that caused caused criminals and terrorists to change their communication channels, closing off some of NSA’s intelligence & response capability.

Chris speaks of Bullrun program: which weakened the security of the internet.

Some people use the internet to work against the US and it’s allies. The NSA needs an ability to respond to this, and it is impossible to differentiate between ‘bad guys’ internet and others. The NSA also has a second role to advise security protocols which it stands behind.

Chris summarises the last statement as if anything is justifiable to protect national security. 

Richard talks about balance between privacy and national security. The NSA needs to be more transparent about how it acquires and uses its information, but he believes they don’t need to be transparent about their operational capabilities.

Is this doing a disservice to the companies that the NSA forces to disclose data?

All countries have similar disclosure laws available to them, in the same way as the USA.

The US constitution allows freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. How do you categorise US citizens right to privacy?

NSA puts significant time and effort into protecting US citizen’s privacy. Richard says he has an email account on the number 1 site used by terrorists, so he is invested in protecting ‘innocents’. He says there are shredding protocols to ignore the data of innocents. Foreigners are also protected by the same ideas. People should only be targetted if they are associated with a counter-terrorism investigation.

Is terrorism still a threat?

It is still the number 1 issue. There are places where Americans and Western foreigners are joining international organisations to “learn Jihad”. Cyberterrorism is another issue, where companies / citizens’ data is used against them, to steal technology or use commercial information to outbid.

Approximately 500 American’s have died over recent decades of Terrorism, and most have been home grown. People don’t believe that terrorism is still the #1 issue.

NSA’s programs have greatly reduced the risk of terrorism over recent years – preventing 54 attacks. Also, a single nuclear or biological threat would greatly increase the number of casualties.

Were the electronic interception programs discussed by Snowden responsible for preventing any of these 54 attacks?

People might say there isn’t a single threat where an attack would have occurred “but for” the electronic interception. However, they were one point in the ‘mosaic’ of information available

Is the word terrorism a cover to acquire more powers? Does the NSA discuss what powers are actually needed?

Internal discussion is key. In addition, the powers were approved by 2 different presidents and the full checks and balances of law.

How do you respond to legislators being shocked and surprised by the scale of NSA investigations?

Congress is a large body, with high turnover every 2 yrs. Congress members had the opportunity to make themselves aware, and the ones with direct responsibility over NSA were very clearly aware of the issues.

Regarding Cyber-attacks: is there a balance between offensive and defensive roles? Has the NSA weakened encryption, and made the US more vulnerable to cyberattacks?

Richard: “You said ‘weaken encryption’, I didn’t”. The NSA is heavily biased towards defense, and disclose vulnerabilities to the manufacturers when discovered. They are also working on transparency reports to disclose their releases to companies / manufacturers.

Has Snowden opened a debate that matters?

Richard did not like the way he did it – by risking the operations and lives of US and it’s allies. However he is glad he started the conversation.

Is it possible to broker an amnesty deal with Snowden, if he surrenders all his remaining documents?

It is always possible to talk about, if the government could get something out of it.

What is your idea worth spreading?

Learn the facts, this is an important conversation about privacy and personal data. Don’t rely on headlines, soundbites or one sided conversations.

Eric Berlow and Sean Gourley: Mapping ideas worth spreading


Eric Berlow: An Ecologist, internationally recognized for his research on ecological complexity and for creative approaches to simplifying complex problems.

Sean Gourley: Physicist with an interest in politics, now using data to understand the nature of human conflict.


Eric and Sean met when they discovered each had spoken at separate but related TEDx talks on the Ecology of war, and began questioning if other TEDx talks were unknowingly linked as well. They analysed the mathematical structures behind all 24,000 TED talks, by pulling the comments, viewers, and extracted transcript of the talks from Youtube. They then extracted key concepts from each talk, to find the ‘meme-ome’ or underlying idea of a talk. By comparing Meme-omes between talks, they can map links.

These links can be analysed firstly by geographical location of the talk, but they also used a neural network to map the main conversation of each talk. This gives the following results:

  • Related subjects are grouped nearby, meaning stronger links between talks of those subjects.
  • By zooming in on ‘Environment’, they saw all the sub-conversations eg food economy, solar, greenhouse gases.
  • They can also see which conversations are the most important to males vs females, or young vs old.
  • They can also analyse the topics that have the most popularity talks
  • Look at topics that link unrelated disciplines
  • On the flipside – which talks are most ‘core’ to their topic – that link a lot of different conversations within the same discipline
  • Some thaat are completely ‘out there’ – not fitting clearly into any particular field.

These algorithms allowed Eric and Sean to simplify their understanding of an extremely complicated network of TED knowledge into a single network map – making the information a little more accessible and a little more ‘human’.




Jeremy Kasdin: The flower-shaped starshade that might help us detect Earth-like planets


Jeremy Kasdin: Aerospace engineer at Princeton University.


In the next decade, Jeremy wants us to build a space telescope that can take pictures of Earth-like planets in distant galaxies. Astronomers now believe that every star in the galaxy has a planet, and up to a fifth might have an earth-like planet that can sustain life. The ‘pale blue dot’ picture of Earth is difficult to take from a long way away, because the nearby beaming star overwhelms the telescope making it impossible to see the planets. Jeremy’s colleagues are working on technology to block out the extreme light of the sun and instead focus on the planet.

One idea is similar to the concept of an eclipse – where a closer object blocks the star, reducing its interference to a ring or corona effect. This is similar to putting a hand over a spotlight so you can see more clearly. Translating it into space: we’d build a large portable screen, open it between a telescope and a star, then take a picture. However, the corona of a circular sunshade still obscures the planet. Instead the sun shade is designed with a flower like pattern, to control the diffraction of light and prevent it washing out the picture. This should allow clearer pictures to be taken of distant planets.

The star shade is as big as half a football field, and has to be flown 50,000 km away from the telescope and then held right in the shadow. His engineers have been designing the system for unfurling and moving the shade.

His hope is that once completed we can take pictures of the planets around nearby stars, then use the information to analyse them and investigate further. By building a giant flower-shaped star-shade and seeing other stars’ pale blue dot, our understanding of the world will change.

My philosophy for a happy life: Sam Berns


Sampson Berns (October 23, 1996 – January 10, 2014) was an American who suffered from progeria and helped raise awareness about the disease.He was the subject of the HBO documentary Life According to Sam.


Sam Berns is a 17 year old highschooler with progeria. The rare disease, which has affected only 350 people worldwide, causes rapid aging, tight skin, and heart disease. A while back Sam was interviewed by NPR, and  was asked, “What is the most important thing people should know about you?” His answer? “I have a very happy life.”

Sam says there are three tenants which he follows that help him live a happier and more fulfilling life.

Firstly, be ok with what you ultimately can’t do because there is so much that you can do. But it is possible to put things in the CAN DO category by making adjustments. Sam tells the story of how he very badly wanted to play snare drum with his school marching band. But the drum and rug weighed about 40 lbs, and he only weighed about 50 lbs. He and his parents worked with an engineer to design a custom rig that was only 6 lbs and ended up performing at half time.

Secondly, surround yourself with people you want to be around. Appreciate you family, your friends, and you mentors, as they all can have a very significant impact on your life.

Third, stay in a forward thinking state of mind. Sam says he always tries to have something to look forward to. He doesn’t waste energy feeling bad for himself, he just moves on.

Sam ends his moving, and well spoken talk by adding in a fourth tenant. “Never miss a party.”

Arthur Benjamin: Lightning calculation and other “Mathemagic”


Arthur Benjamin is an American mathematician known for his stage and TV shows in mathemagic – showing off his skill in rapidly performing calculations with large numbers. He has published multiple books to teach these skills to others.


Arthur combines his love of magic and maths to do some extremely quick calculations – squaring and multiplying random 2-3 digit numbers instantly as they are called out by the audience. 4 digit numbers took a little longer, but still within a few seconds.

His next ‘trick’ was to ask the audience to multiply a known 4 digit number (8649, the result of an earlier calculation) by a 3 digit number of their own choice. The result was a 7 digit number. He asked the audience to read out any 6 of those numbers in any order, and he would name the 7th. Again, he gave the answers instantly.

Next he’d ask people for the date of birth from audience members or another random date, then respond with which day of the week it was. Again his response was instant.

He returns to squaring big numbers – taking 5 random digits to form a number, then squaring it while explaining his thought patterns. The number was 57,683, and his steps were:

  1. calculate 57,000 squared
  2. calculate 683 squared
  3. add 57,000 times 683 times 2

By adding these 3 together, the result should equal 57,683 squared. As he does each of these steps he remembers numbers as words, so stores ‘cookie’ and ‘fission’ as some results. It takes him a bit longer, but his end result is correct coming to 3,327,328,489.

The talk is entertaining enough, with Arthur having the perfect blend of charismatic and nerdy. As plenty of comments point out, he wasn’t perfect – calling out incorrectly when asked to square 457 (answer is 205849, he said 208849) http://youtu.be/M4vqr3_ROIk?t=3m38s. Still, given the number of calculations he did, it was an impressive feat. Unfortunately, there’s not much to take away from it, with him only giving an insight for the final 5 digit square trick.

Hans Rosling: Debunking third-world myths with the best stats you’ve ever seen


Hans Rosling is a medical doctor and statistician. He is co-founder and chairman of the Gapminder Foundation, which developed the Trendalyzer software system.


Hans taught ‘Global Development’ to Swedish undergraduates, finding they had preconceived ideas about statistics of Child Mortality after failing to predict which of 2 countries had worse child mortality. He talked through some common myths about the third world

  1. Developed world has long lives with small families, while developing world is the opposite: Hand showed this was true in 1962, but since then (until 2003) most countries have moved towards a trend of smaller families and increasing life expectancy. The African countries were one area lagging in life expectancy, due to a HIV epidemic in the 90s.
  2. Income distribution: there is no ‘gap’ between rich and poor (in that people earn incomes at all possible rates from $1 to $100 per day). The riches 20% take 74% of income, while the poorest 20% have 2%, and the middle 60% have 26% of money. There is some overlap in income rates between OECD and Africa (in that some Africans earn more than some OECD).
  3. Child mortality vs GDP: there is a clear linear trend between Child survival and GDP.
  • However within regions such as sub-Sahara Africa, there is tremendous variation – with Mauritius having OECD level high GDP and child health, but Sierra Leonne being much lower than average. He credits Mauritius’ success with breaking down trade barriers.
  • Taking China as an example, Hans showed Mao Ze-Dong’s period as bringing health to China (with decreased child mortality on one axis), and the Deng Xiao-Ping bringing money to China (moving across the GDP per capita axis).
  • UAE is an example of a country that started with high GDP but poor child mortality. Over time it has improved, but it is evidence that money alone is not enough to guarantee health, you need time to train doctors and build infrastructure.
  • Within countries, there is tremendous variation in income – eg over 3 countries in Africa there is the full spectrum of income levels. This makes it deceptive to talk of health issues in ‘Africa’, since the management strategies for the richest would be very different to those of the poorest.

These data will increase everyone’s understanding of the world, but is hidden away with separate organisations, making is difficult to access. Hans linked up some of the key databases using ‘GapMinder’ organisation. Gapminder has provided animation, search functions and design features to make it accessible and usable for all.