Empire State College Translator: Ellen Maloney Reviewer: Mile Živković I am not a rocket scientist. [The sexiest man alive] (Cheers) (Applause) But my father was. Now I am mainly known as a mature stage-television-film actor, who's had a pretty good run, from vanquishing the Kraken in Clash of the Titans, to winning a bunch of kooky cases in LA Law, to more recently, really running an ad agency in AMC's Mad Men. (Cheers) But truth be told, my real passion in life has much less to do with my chosen profession, and more to do with science. You know, what I'm really trying to do is fashion a solution to some of the world's biggest problems. Alright. Now, here we have an everyday, ordinary light switch, right? You flick it, and voila! I'm going to go out on a limb here and I'm going to guess that a lot of you have switches like this in your house and you use them everyday. Right? But here's the thing: For about 75 per cent of you, or more, the electricity going through your house is coming from a coal or gas-fired power plant. For about 15 per cent of you or less, it's coming from a nuclear power plant, and for about ten per cent of you or much less, it's coming from a renewable source like wind, solar, or hydroelectric. The vast majority of electricity in the world is produced by burning fossil fuels. Mainly coal. Which is indisputably spewing massive amounts of CO2 into our thin atmosphere, and which most scientists agree, is contributing to climate change. So, obviously we need a new source of power. Something that will feed the insatiable thirst for electricity in the world, without polluting our fragile planet. But what? Renewables, as they're conceived today, will only ever produce enough electricity to satisfy a small fraction of the world's needs. So, what's it going to be? Well, about 25 years ago, I was somehow pulled into the futuristic fray of alternative energy. Mainly because, as Forrest Gump says: "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." So, here's the story: In the fall of 1971, when I was a sophomore at UC Berkeley, the kid across the hall from me burst into my room one day, clutching a letter from his father, who happened to work for the National Science Foundation, studying the polar ice sheets in Antarctica. Wide-eyed, he blurted out that his father had made an earth-shattering discovery, but he couldn't tell me what it was because the government wanted to keep it top secret. So, he told me anyway. (Laughter) He said that his father and his team, after studying the polar ice sheets, had determined, unequivocally, that the world was on the brink of major climate change, and that there would be a warming period, followed closely by an ice age. Jon Snow, where are you when we need you? This was back in the early 70s. Neil Young was singing some songs about the environment, people were starting to talk about it, but no one was talking about climate change. Now, I was blown away. And I remember that moment like it was yesterday. Little did I know at the time that that would be dot number one of three dots that would be connected over the next couple of decades that would send me, quite improbably, into the archane world of big science, alternative energy, and advanced nuclear physics. Now, according to Malcolm Gladwell, the prolific author of 'Tipping Point,' 'Blink,' and 'Outliers, ' when you're born can have a lot to do with what you end up doing with your life. He cites Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, both of whom were born in 1955, and who, because of their date of birth, their friendships, and their location, changed the world by bringing us the personal computer. Had they been born a few years earlier or a few years later, they might have missed the tech sweet spot altogether and become actors. (Laughter) Or ballet dancers, or hedge funders. Now like I said, my father was a rocket scientist. He was born in 1905, which was the sweet spot for speed. People back then were getting used to going faster than a galloping horse, and you wanted to get attention, you wanted to get noticed, you went fast. In either a car or a boat or whatever. High speed brought local fame, and the attention, more importantly, to my father, of the opposite sex. He was brought up on a lake in the north east so his medium was water, and since the girl he was trying to get was playing really hard to get, he went to MIT after college to learn how to build the fastest boat in the world so he could get this girl. And he did. And not long after they were married, he won the world speed record for going just under 90 miles an hour, in a homemade hydroplane called "The Voodoo." Aah, there's dad! Unfortunately, a catastrophic accident in The Voodoo around the same time destroyed his left arm, and his boat-racing days came to an end. He was a one-armed speed demon, an expert in aqua- and aerodynamics. Before and after the Second World War, and casting around for something to do, when the government tapped him to work in America's nascent aerospace program. Because he knew how to make things go
astonishingly fast through liquid and air, he ended up working with Dr Wernher von Braun on the Apollo program's Saturn five rocket. Somehow, my father went from being a horny boat builder to a rocket scientist. (Laughter) Something he never intended to do. From changing his attention from, what was a pretty narcissistic pursuit, to focusing on a futuristic world-changing technology, that until then, had been just the stuff of science fiction. So, how did this happen? Was it luck? Was it skill? Was it timing? Was it just random? Well, the same sort of thing happened to me so let's take a look. I was born in 1951, in Pasadena, California. I figure I missed the computer-tech sweet spot by about three or four years, relative to Gates and Jobs. No, I was a dyed-in-the-wool post-war baby boomer, destined to grow my hair, don a pair of sandals and identify as a hippy, doomed to a career in the humanities. (Laughter) For my generation, the best way to get the girl was to learn how to play the guitar, become a rock star. Or, learn how to act and become a movie star. I chose the latter and it kind of worked out for me. But because I play the guitar and sing a little bit, I've always kept 'rock star' in my pocket as a back-up. I didn't have to pull it out though, because my career took off. And by 1980, I was making movies and living part-time in Rome, Italy, where one day, I was invited to a cocktail reception at the Swiss consulate where I met an impeccably dressed, very handsome gentleman, who identified himself as a Serbian-born nuclear physicist, who had a lab in Princeton, New Jersey, researching a new way to make electricity that was clean and pollution free. He said he was working on a new way to make nuclear fusion on Earth, that was non-radioactive and environmentallyfriendly. This was 1980. I was wearing bell-bottoms. My hair was down to here. Nuclear fusion? What the heck is that? He explained that the very early history of the universe, the first atoms to form were hydrogen. And that over billion of years, gravity pulled those hydrogen atoms together to form gigantic spherical blobs of hydrogen gas, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of miles across. And at the very interior core of those huge blobs of hydrogen gas, the pressure was so great due to the force of gravity, that normally repellent positively charged protons in the hydrogen nuclei were forced together, fusing and releasing tremendous amounts of energy in the form of charged alpha particles and helium nuclei. I was still wearing bell bottoms. (Laughter) No, he realised that he wasn't talking to a rocket scientist, and he put it more simply. He said he was describing the birth of a star, and that our sun was born exactly the same way. He said that his project was about creating a tiny, tiny miniscule star inside of a magnetic field in a laboratory, and then harvesting the energy from the reactions to make electricity. Even though I was still wearing bell bottoms, I began to get the picture. He saw that I was curious and he ended up, a few weeks later, sending me some of his published material. [High energy fusion: A quest for a small environmentally acceptable power source] Two years later, in 1982, I was invited to play Hamlet, at the famed McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, where this nuclear physicist had his lab. He saw my picture in the paper, found me in the theater, took me to his lab and outlined the steps he was he was going to have to take to make a commercial fusion power plant. He said that his project was unique because it was nonradioactive, and it would be an inexhaustible, clean power source, for the world, forever. Well, at that moment, the skeptic in me began to crawl out because this was sounding way too good to be true. I finished the play, wished him all the luck in the world, went back to my home in southern California. But he was relentless, and he kept sending me updates to his work for the next nine years. Then, in 1991, he moved his entire operation to southern California to work with the head of the physics department at UC Irvine, who happened to be working on a similar kind of fusion. He said he started a company to help fund the research and would I join the board of directors? (Laughter) Well, I was not a businessman, and I wasn't a nuclear physicist, and I certainly wasn't a rocket scientist, so it must have been the People Magazine thing that impressed him. (Laughter) I joined the board. At our very first board meeting, he introduced me enthusiastically to my fellow board members. First, was Dr. Murray Gell-Mann, who won the Nobel prize for discovering the quark. Then, there was Dr. Glenn Seaborg who won the Nobel prize for discovering plutonium, and who had headed the Atomic Energy Commission under four presidents. Then, there was Dr Edwin Buzz Aldrin. We all know what he did, right? My skepticism flew out the window, and for the next few years, I became a kind of spokesperson for their project. I testified before congress, I lobbied politicians in Washington D.C. I even went on P.B.S. to hawk this new aneutronic fusion. Joining that board was dot number two along the way. Unfortunately, that company didn't make it due to management problems, but the university was so excited about its physics' department's work on this new aneutronic fusion, that they formed a special advisory board, to brainstorm a way forward for the technology. They invited me to be on the board, and because of my public advocacy, and because of my celebrity status, to reach out to politicians and rich guys, and quite certainly because of my victory over the Kraken, (Laughter) they elected me chairman. Glenn Seaborg was made co-chairman; he had discovered plutonium so he didn't have to kill monsters to gain credibility. Now about that time, there was a lot of talk surfacing about CO2 and greenhouse gases, and this new phrase "global warming" had come into the conversation. I was determined to raise some funds to start a project because I thought it just might be the solution to some of these
problems. I went to banks and billionaires, armed only with my "sexiest man" status. I worked on my pitch. I would say that this new non-radioactive fusion energy would feed the global grid for thousands of years, providing base load power at industrial scale, at a very cheap price, with no pollution at all. I would tell the investors that the power plants, though nuclear, were non-radioactive and they couldn't blow up or melt down, and that the only bi-product would be helium. So, we could open party stores, and make balloons, right? Lots and lots of balloons. I mean, who wouldn't whip out their checkbook, right? Well, I might as well have been hawking snake oil. I hit brick wall after brick wall. Then, in the fall of 1997, Science Magazine, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, published its first paper on this new aneutronic fusion, entitled "Colliding Beam Fusion Reactor" and it was authored by the head of the physics department at UC Irvine and his collaborators. This lent credibility to the project, and the university quickly formed a special session of the board of advisors to figure out what to do next. It was at that meeting, which I co-chaired with Glenn Seaborg, that I hit on dot number three. Dr. Seaborg was ailing; he couldn't make the meeting so I acted as chairman. The room was filled with some of the sharpest minds in physics and business and engineering, and somehow they all listened to the chairman, who was neither a businessman nor a nuclear physicist, nor a rocket scientist, but who had, nonetheless, clad only in a loin cloth and red cape, slayed Medusa two decades earlier. (Laughter) Towards the end of the meeting, we heard proposals from a couple of potential lead investors. One of them promised to write a check for millions on the spot if we granted him the license. This, of course, made the scientists sit up very straight. Nothing like big bucks to make research scientists salivate. They wanted to make a deal, but I said, "Wait a minute, woah, woah, woah! Hold your horses! Neither the university, nor I, nor Dr. Seaborg have been able to vet these people properly." They had very suspicious backgrounds. I said, "If we take money from them, and then someday, we have to go to another funding source, a reputable source like a big bank or a venture capitalist, we'll be turned away because these people are involved." They didn't want to hear this at all. They wanted to go back and keep talking about a deal, and that is the moment I hit on dot number three. I had a brainstorm. I looked out at the group and I said, "Wait. Listen." I said, "We have to start our own company. We have to do this ourselves. Because we all believe in the project, we're all successful in our own fields, and we have the connections and networks of people to get enough money to get this project going." I said, "If we do it, and then someday we have to go to another source, like Morgan Stanley or some other venture capitalist, they won't turn us away because it's us." The room fell very silent. They looked at me like I was out of my mind. They went back to talking about the deal. I stood up, I had to take a stand. I stood up and I said, "Please, please don't take any money from these people. But if you do, I'm going to have to resign from the board, I'm going to have to withdraw my support for the project, because I know that it'll be killed before it's ever born." Well, this kind of got their attention, and they decided to, at least, put on hold the idea of taking money from these people for the time being. The meeting ended but I kept lobbying for our own company for weeks, and finally, just the right guy from the board called me up and said, "I get it, okay, let's do it." And on April 11th, 1998, the company now known as "TRI ALPHA ENERGY" was born. Since then, we've been extremely fortunate to have attracted just the right people, business people, scientists, and engineers, who have brought every single milestone in on budget and on schedule since the inception of the project, on their way to bringing clean fusion power to the world. Nobel Laureate Arnold Penzias who won the Nobel prize for discovering the background radiation that proves the Big Bang studied the project in-depth. He concluded by saying, and I quote: "This may be the greatest discovery for energy since fire." Time magazine featured the project in it's fall 2015 cover story entitled, "Fusion; the sexiest energy alive." (Laughter) Actually, "Unlimited energy for everyone, forever. Fusion: It might actually work this time." So, how is it that a post-war, baby-boomer, hippy actor from Pasadena, got mixed up with advanced nuclear physics and alternative energy? I guess I had to be in the right place at the right time, but I also had to listen, I had to be curious, and I had to keep an open mind. I also had to connect some dots. I had to find the nexus between ideas and events that, had they not been connected, might have drifted off into oblivion. I think, most important, is to listen; to pay attention to the sights and sounds in the present moment because they always give us the clue to the story of our future. Obviously, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to be a futurist. [The sexiest man alive] If I can do it, anybody can. Thank you. (Applause) Rochester Institute of Technology.