Today’s Rush Holt: Andrew Zwicker

Science and politics have a pretty long history together, so it’s not really surprising that the two are still duking it out when it comes to the future.

What makes this particular juncture in history and in the science/politics fight such an important one, however, is that we are actually at a real crossroads. And this is not the usual “sky is falling” alarmism. We really are, as a planet, inhaling energy resources like a Shop-Vac, and with highly populated parts of the world like India and China using more power every day, it’s time for a better approach to energy production than melted dinosaurs.

So here’s the spot where a panacea-type solution gets put on the table, right? Something like, say, fusion energy, which would have all the benefits and few of the drawbacks of large-scale energy sources like gasoline or nuclear fission.

Well, yes and no. Yes, fusion would be great, but it’s not the only thing, says Andrew Zwicker, state assemblyman and physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. The answer (at least the science part of it) lies in a concert of fusion research and renewable resources like wind and solar that are available now — mainly because realizing workable fusion has been 30 years away for about 50 years now.

The other answer? Getting through the political wall that keeps needed funding and patient, rational discourse on its belly. And Zwicker is not sure which one is the harder challenge to overcome.

Zwicker will be one of two main speakers at “The Future of Energy in Our Region,” the latest installment of the lecture series “Framing the Future,” hosted by the D&R Greenway Land Trust and Green Hour Radio, on Tuesday, May 24, at 6:30 p.m. at D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center, One Preservation Place, Princeton.  Zwicker will join Thomas Leyden, vice president of energy storage deployment at SunEdison, to discuss how our electric power sector is transforming to meet the challenges of climate change and to embrace the promise of emerging technologies. Admission is free. Visit www.drgreenway.org, E-mailrsvp@drgreenway.org, or call 609-924-4646.


 

Born in New York, Zwicker grew up in Englewood, in affluent Bergen County, with two politically active Democratic parents. In between his mother’s days teaching English and his father’s days running a small food business that he owned, Zwicker’s parents often stuffed envelopes to help local political candidates.

While not growing up specifically wanting to be in politics, Zwicker says “the seed was planted” by his parents, who also taught him the value of education and hard work. He chased his dream of being a scientist at Bard College, where he earned his bachelor’s in 1986. In 1992 he earned his master’s and Ph.D., also in physics, from Johns Hopkins, with a dissertation involving plasma physics. He has worked at PPPL, focusing on fusion energy research, and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Zwicker has been the head of the Science Education Department at PPPL since 2003, mainly focusing on creating opportunities for students of all backgrounds to engage in scientific inquiry; his research is centered on plasmas. He also used to teach a writing class in bioethics at Princeton University, but had to give it up, thanks in large part to the demands of his work in the New Jersey State Assembly.

Zwicker’s political career kicked off when U.S. Rep Rush Holt (D-12th), a physicist colleague of Zwicker’s, decided not to run for another term in 2014. Zwicker sought Holt’s seat but lost in the primaries. He garnered enough support however, to run for a State Assembly seat in the 16th Legislative District.

The 16th had not even once had a Democrat represent it in its 42-year history. But Zwicker and a colleague ran a coordinated, highly targeted campaign (read: a scientifically based one) that made the ungodly amount of phone calls (78,000) and door knockings (22,000) as efficient as possible. When the race was over, he won by a mere 78 votes, but proved that scientific reasoning and rationality actually works when it’s able to be applied as needed.

Now if only that could work on a grander scale.

The science. With fossil fuels running out at a fantastic rate, and with no new crop of dinosaurs to tap into, the future of energy is, Zwicker says, going to have to be decided now. Fusion energy, of course, would be a fantastic boon.

Here are the basics of how it works: remove hydrogen from seawater and fuse together the lightweight elements to make a heavier one that emits energy. This is what the sun does naturally, which begs the obvious question of why it’s not so easy to recreate the process on earth, since we know how it works.

Well, the sun has two major advantages, one being high heat and the other being an intense gravitational field, both of which it uses as its own self-governed furnace. On earth, Zwicker says, we can’t yet replicate the conditions that make fusion energy possible in any practical way.

How far away are we from getting there? “If we were super-aggressive,” Zwicker says, meaning concentrated, deep government-level funding for heavy research into fusion, “15 to 20 years. Some people think that’s wildly optimistic.”

A more sober estimate is 30 to 40 years, he says, “but they’ve been saying that for 50 years.”

So even if fusion research got super-aggressive, we’re still talking the amount of time it would take for someone to complete school and at least an associate’s degree before it happened. So we have to do other things now.

Zwicker’s recommendation during this very open-ended meantime is to aggressively develop wind farms offshore and beef up solar, which New Jersey is “OK at” compared to other states in the Northeast, he says. Those technologies work now, and we should be using them more.

Nuclear, of course, is another option, which aggravates the hell out of most people who advocate non-fossil fuels, Zwicker says. People recall the few nuclear plant disasters because those events were incredibly catastrophic in most cases. People know that when nuclear goes wrong it goes fantastically wrong and they know that waste disposal is a major issue. This has held up a resource that Zwicker says is actually clean and would be a great stopgap until fusion could come into play for real.

By the way, the benefits of fusion are indeed astounding. There’s no radiation, there’s no way for a bad reaction to happen, and there’s no toxic waste. Also, there’s the pure abundance of energy resources.

“Two-thirds of the planet is covered by water,” Zwicker says. “If just the top inch of Lake Erie were used [for fusion fuel], it would equal all the fossil fuels we have left in the ground.”

The politics. Fun fact: no major presidential candidate in 2016 is talking about energy. At the federal level, in fact, there is such a wave of anti-science and anti-intellectualism that the chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), is a vociferous denier of climate change.

So getting a concentrated, aggressive level of adequate funding for research is, to say the least, challenging. One of the reasons Zwicker decided to run for office, in fact, was because “I couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. He was frustrated about the anti-science platform in Washington, as well as by the lack of investment in what could be a savior of a technology by both Democrats and Republicans at the state and federal levels.

And he’s still frustrated, because science literacy and the need for patience and rational research is taking a bad back-alley beating these days.

“This is where it gets personal for me,” he says. “I’m brand new in the legislature. The big question for me is, ‘Can I as a scientist-politician be effective?’”

He can, he says, if people get to know the truth, weed out the political rancor, and listen to reason. Whether that’s doable is as theoretical at this point as fusion science itself. The only things he knows for sure are that we need to work a lot harder a lot sooner to get emerging and renewable technologies out there in a bigger way, and that the political stuff is a waste of time.

“This should not be a political issue in the least,” he says. “We are at a genuine tipping point in terms of climate. But we’re also at a point where doing good for the environment is just good business.”

So there’s always hope, he says. There just needs to be a lot more action.

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