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Mike’s laser quest recalled in new book | 04/08/2011
A dramatic Cold War mission to Moscow, a close encounter with Colonel Gaddafi, and the quest to build a man-made Sun…it was all in a day's work for retired Culham scientist Dr Mike Forrest.
All of this and more are described in Mike's memoirs, Lasers Across the Cherry Orchards, which have just been published. The book tells the story of his 50-year career in nuclear fusion.
And the book has the backing of no less than Tony Benn, the former Labour MP who was Energy Secretary in the 1970s. Mr Benn telephoned Mike to discuss the book and later sent him a note: “your book about international cooperation with the Russians on nuclear fusion is of great interest – I hope it attracts a wide readership.”
“My life as a scientist started in 1957 on one of the world's first fusion experiments, ZETA at Harwell, progressing through to the European JET machine which is still taking the science forward today at Culham,” said Mike Forrest. “Along the way I worked with the Libyans, Italians, Portuguese and Swedes on their fusion programmes and was part of a groundbreaking trip to Moscow to work with my Soviet counterparts at the height of the Cold War. A long way from the Welsh valley I grew up in.”
It was the 1969 Moscow expedition that Mike – an expert in laser measurements – singles out as a highlight. A team from Culham, the home of the UK's fusion programme, went to validate the results of a new machine developed by the Russians, the ‘tokamak', which was to revolutionise the fusion field. Mike's laser diagnostic system accurately measured temperatures of over 10 million degrees Celsius inside the T3 tokamak. This confirmed that a giant step forward had indeed been made in achieving the conditions needed for fusion energy, opening the way for larger tokamaks such as JET to be built and the path to fusion power stations to be mapped out.
The trip – highly unusual at the time – was specially sanctioned by the UK Government because of the importance of the work.
“It was a fascinating glimpse behind the Iron Curtain,” Mike remembers. “The local Communist Party treated us to trips to the Moscow State Circus, the Bolshoi Ballet and the Kremlin – but the KGB were always there in the background. However, the overall memory was the general kindness of the Russian people.”
Mike is still in demand even in retirement, and is currently acting as an adviser to ITER, a giant international project that will be the successor to JET and the stepping stone to commercial fusion power.
Mike's memoirs have attracted the interest of the British Library, which is conducting a series of interviews with him for its Oral History of British Science. An archive containing recordings with around 200 UK scientists, it aims to increase the public's understanding of science and the people behind the technological advances that shape our world.
Dr Thomas Lean from the British Library, who has been interviewing Mike Forrest for the archive project, said:
“Mike has an amazing story. I was lucky enough to join him for a visit to Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, which gave me an insight into the work he's been describing. Seeing the JET and MAST experiments there really brought it alive and will help us to convey the atmosphere in the archive recordings.”
'Lasers Across the Cherry Orchards' is published by Tandem Press and can be ordered at: www.mjforrest.co.uk.
- (Top) Dr Mike Forrest at Culham
- (Middle) Mike Forrest working on laser diagnostics in 1964
- (Bottom) Mike with Dr Thomas Lean of the British Library at Culham's MAST fusion experiment