5 Intriguing Things: Thursday, 2/13

A man with two hooks and a gun, fusion, starting cars with phones, what Charlie Chaplin really looked like, and the ancestors of this newsletter.
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1. Private investigator and grinder hero Jay J. Armes was one of People magazine's 25 Most Intriguing People in 1975

"The seeds of discord had been scattered unexpectedly the previous day, at a corner table of El Paso’s Miguel Steak and Spirits where Jay Armes sat with his back to the wall regaling the Canadians and two American magazine writers with tales of his escapades, or 'capers,' as he called them.

He talked of the long helicopter search and dramatic rescue of Marlon Brando’s son Christian from a remote Mexican seaside cave where the lad was being held by eight dangerous hippies; of the time he piloted his glider into Cuba and recovered $2 million of his client’s “assets”; of the famous Mexican prison break, another helicopter caper which, he said, inspired the Charles Bronson movie Breakout; of the “Onion King Caper” in which a beautiful model shot her octogenarian husband, then turned a shotgun on herself because Armes wouldn’t spend the night with her—all incredible adventures of a super-sleuth, adventures made more incredible by the fact that both of Jay Armes’ hands had been blown off in a childhood dynamite accident.

He raised one of his gleaming steel hooks, signaling the waitress, still watching the faces around the table. Too much, they said in admiration: how did he do it? “I read the book,” Armes replied enigmatically, “and I saw the play.” That was one of his best lines."

 

2. A major milestone in fusion power! The National Ignition Facility uses $3.5 billion worth of lasers to heat a tiny capsule of fuel. For the first time, they got more energy out of the system than they put into it. But... 

"Employing 1.9 megajoules in slightly more than a nanosecond, the lasers deliver 500 terawatts of power inside the hohlraum (a terawatt is a trillion watts). A cloud of helium gas holds back the gold plasma that would otherwise intrude as the laser power is translated into x-rays by the hohlraum. These x-rays hit the plastic shell of the capsule, which absorbs roughly one tenth of the energy put into the lasers to begin with. That's enough energy to obliterate the outside shell and drive the fuel together "like a rocket," in the words of Hurricane, collapsing the sphere of fuel until it is one thirty-fifth its original size in almost no time at all, the equivalent of going from a sphere the size of a basketball to one the size of a pea almost instantly. The fuel absorbs roughly one tenth of the energy delivered by the x-rays onto the plastic capsule. That energy and implosion create a high pressure (150 gigabars) region of fusion that is even smaller than the layer of fuel itself—a hotspot that is 60 microns in diameter and shaped, depending on the qualities of the shot, like a doughnut without a hole, or an apple...
 
It is here in the hotspot that the fuel reaches more than 50 million kelvins (about 50 million degrees C) and experiences 150 billion Earth-atmospheres worth of pressure. The fusion of deuterium and tritium that results under those conditions produces helium and a spare neutron, and releases some 17,000 joules of energy in the process. [Ed: This is not a lot.]
 
In other words, these ferocious conditions almost three times denser than the center of the sun release the same amount of energy embodied by a downhill skier going 58 kilometers per hour (by Hurricane's calculations). All told, only about 1 percent of the energy from the lasers ends up in the fuel, which then pumps out 17,000 joules’ worth of energy, or less than the energy needed to make the DT fuel in the first place. All of it lasts for 150 picoseconds, or 150 trillionths of a second, before the fusion zone blows itself apart. "

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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