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PhD Comics’ guide to fusion makes the complex understandable

By Jeanne Jackson DeVoe

The eight-minute “Fusion Energy Explained,” created by PhD Comics’ Jorge Cham, which features interviews and cartoon characters of PPPL physicists, has over 90,000 “hits” on YouTube after being posted on June 9. 

In the video, cartoon characters of Andrew Zwicker, head of Science Education, and Arturo Dominguez, a postdoctoral fellow in the Science Education Department, explain some of the basics of magnetic fusion. Stefan Gerhardt, a principal research physicist, gives a tour of the National Spherical Torus Experiment in a live video and as a cartoon character. The video can be seen on the PhD Comics site, onYouTube and on the PPPL website.

Cham said he was very satisfied with the final result. “I feel great about it,” he said. “I tried a few different new animation tricks and it all came together well.”

The three physicists featured in the video were also happy with the video. “I love it!” said Dominguez. “I’ve been hearing from people that I was born to become a cartoon!”

“Jorge’s creativity is what puts it into a different realm,” said Zwicker.  “It’s awesome because of him. It’s nice that we were part of it and I think we did a good job being clear but Jorge is the one who pushed it into a different arena.”

“It makes people smile”

“It makes people smile,” Zwicker added. He said he and Dominguez showed the video to their mothers, and they both had the same reaction. “My mom and Arturo’s mom said, ‘I think I almost understand what you do now, for the first time ever!’”

Cham said he came to the Lab in November at the urging of Director of Communications Kitta MacPherson. “I jumped at the opportunity,” he said. “I knew there was an interesting story and some very cool concepts behind getting (magnetic fusion) to work that would be great to explain.”

He said he enjoyed meeting physicists and graduate students during his November visit. “The optimism and desire to change the world was really great,” he said.

The researchers were impressed with Cham’s ability to synthesize complex information. “He got the message very well,” said Gerhardt. “It’s pretty impressive, I have to say, for him to zoom in one day, and do this.”

Cham, who has a PhD from Stanford University in mechanical engineering, is well known for his cartoon “Piled Higher and Deeper” (PhD for short) about the life of graduate students. His website gets about 6.5 million unique visitors a year.

Cham also produces a dozen videos a year on topics ranging from the Dead Sea Scrolls to  “A Brief Interview with Stephen Hawking.” The videos use live video, cartoons, or a combination of both like the PPPL video. Cham is also a poplar speaker on college campuses with his talk on, “The Power of Procrastination.” He gave about a dozen talks at universities around the country and in Saudi Arabia and the UK over the past six months.

Animations are hand drawn

Cham hand draws his cartoons and animations, including most of those in the PPPL video. (The segments that show particles interacting were done by Jasper Palfree from MinuteLabs.) The drawing is “the easy part for me,” Cham said. “The more time consuming parts are the audio editing and animation.”

The interviews with Dominguez, Zwicker and Gerhardt “were great and did a lot of the hard work,” Cham said. The challenge, he said, was deciding how much to explain about plasma and fusion. “I had the feeling the public probably don’t know what either fusion or plasma is but getting two satisfying explanations in one video is hard,” he said in an email from a family vacation in Panama, where both he and his wife grew up.

In the video, Zwicker explains the promise of fusion energy. “Either this is too good to be true or you’re left with, ‘This is crazy! This is the most important thing we can be doing scientifically!’” he says at the beginning of the video.

The video uses cartoons of two hydrogen particles with feet to show how they combine in fusion. Dominguez describes how the two particles repel each other when they get close together unless their nucleii get close enough to touch each other and “have this nuclear strong force take over. It’s an attractive force that’s stronger than electric repulsion,” he explains as a heart appears over the fused particles.

Zwicker and Dominguez take turns narrating how fusion works. “The big question becomes: What is the right container?” Zwicker says. The Laboratory is working on the answer by “making a magnetic bottle,” he says.

A cartoon image of Dominguez explains that a magnetic field traps plasma and keeps it from hitting the wall of a tokamak. The process is similar to how the jelly in a jelly donut is trapped inside the donut and doesn’t touch the outside glaze, he says.

Gerhardt then explains how NSTX-U works in a live video tour of the device that also features cartoon illustrations of how the device works. Gerhardt walks Cham and the audience through how the device creates plasma and heats it up.

Ends on an upbeat note

The video ends on an upbeat note. “If we’re right, it changes the planet as we know it because it’s a completely new paradigm and a source of energy,” Zwicker says. “I mean, don’t you want to be part of something that changes the world? That’s the bottom line.”

That argument has apparently convinced Cham. He says he is rooting for magnetic fusion to become a reality. “I hope you guys succeed!” he said. “The planet needs it!”

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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