The Valleys boy who broached the Iron Curtain for pure science; As the 1960s came to a close, the deteriorating relationship between the USA and the Soviet Union had brought the world close to nuclear war. The Iron Curtain was an impenetrable barrier cutting off East from West - except for a small group of British scientists led by Dr Mike Forrest. He told GRAHAM HENRY his remarkable story.
* HE year of 1969 saw man take its first steps on the moon. It witnessed the maiden flights of the Boeing 747 and Concorde, and the first home computer was released.
And it also marked the first real ruffles in the Iron Curtain - with the first tentative steps of collaboration between the Soviet Union and Britain.
The man at the heart of this memorable moment was a Welsh scientist from Aberdare - a man who has only now begun to talk about the historic moments he was at the centre of.
Veteran physicist Dr Mike "The Laser" Forrest has penned his memoirs, Lasers Across The Cherry Orchards, in which he documents his life and career as a scientist working in the fledgling years of nuclear fusion power, touted as a greenhouse gas-free method of mass energy production.
His work led him to have unprecedented and historic access to top-secret Russian nuclear facilities, opened up to the West for the first time.
Dr Forrest was one of the first Westerners to be allowed to broach the Cold War partition on the back of his research - which had been cloaked in secrecy from the very moment he took up a position as at the renowned science centre at Harwell, Oxfordshire.
"With Harwell, I had sent off an application form, and two days later I was called up for an interview in Harwell itself," the 77-year-old says.
"When I actually went in for it, there was a panel of four scientists and an administrator. I had this interview - and they told me that they were thinking of offering me the job, related to science.
"But they couldn't actually tell me what it was, because it was classified. All they told me was that they thought it would be interesting and would suit me.
"I thought that if it was interesting, I'd go for it. I had nothing to lose - but it's true that it was a leap of faith."
Sufficiently intrigued to accept the offer, blind, Dr Forrest was vetted by security services who investigated his background to discover if he had any questionable activities or Communist sympathies, but he was approved within six weeks.
Harwell's interest in Dr Forrest stemmed from his, at the time, unique position of being a new, guinea-pig graduate of an engineering "sandwich course" from Treforest Technical College (later to become the University of Glamorgan).
The son of a confectioner, his first love was engineering - sparked by designing prototype cars, and he loved stripping and rebuilding engines from as early as eight years old.
He had even produced his own make of car - the entirely fictional "Hassington Staveley" brand - among several mini-projects he took on throughout his schooling at Aberdare's town council primary school, and later the William Jones charity's West Monmouth School in Pontypool.
It was in Aberdare he met his girlfriend, later his wife, Annita, herself from Cwmdare.
But frustrated by the emphasis on the arts in Pontypool, he transferred to Treforest to indulge his passion for engineering.
By the time of his graduation, he had spent half his degree course working in the engineering industry - spending six months on jet engines for Rolls-Royce where he met the inventor of the jet engine himself, Sir Frank Whittle.
This, coupled with his knowledge of photography and optics, meant Dr Forrest was immediately placed by Harwell on the top-secret project to develop the - to that point, embryonic - nuclear fusion capability of the UK, in 1957, on the Zeta machine experiment.
The machine was at the centre of British experiments in fusion technology, and Dr Forrest's team were tasked with perfecting a technique to accurately measure the extraordinarily high temperatures produced during the procedure that were vital for turning the fuel into plasma, and making the process viable.
"It was in around 1962 when lasers had first come off the drawing board," he says. "They were very rough and crude. Bob Wilson - my boss at the time - showed me a letter in Nature by Tom Hughes, who was proposing this new measure by laser scattering. It was just an idea, but we realised there could be something in it.
"He told me to take the letter away and work out whether it [the technique] was feasible."
Within two weeks, a team was put together that included David Evans, a cosmic rays specialist from Bristol University, and Alan de Silvea , an associate professor at the University of Maryland, to look at using laser scattering to accurately measure temperatures created during fusion.
"I thought we could have a go," he says. "My boss said OK, spoke to the director and started to get the project off the ground."
The team was moved to a purpose-built lab at the nearby Culham Laboratory for Plasma Physics and Nuclear Fusion in 1964, and given an "essentially limitless" budget to develop the technique.
He says: "We actually had to build our own laser, because the ones we usually bought were not powerful enough.
"The idea was to measure temperatures high enough for fuel to become plasma [around 100 million degrees], so we needed our own little plasma device.
"We had to do everything from scratch, but there were all these terrific engineers - not just in the scientific field, but also part of the weapons industry - supplying support."
Under the directorship of renowned physicist Sebastian "Bas" Pease, the compact team, led by Dr Forrest, worked on a ruby laser light scattering method.
The five-year development of, accurately, measuring the astronomical temperatures of these plasmas would lead to Dr Forrest's career highlight in December, 1968, and for nearly a year afterwards.
Soviet scientists - led by Lev Artsimovich - claimed to be leading the nuclear fusion race, at the height of the Cold War, by achieving temperatures of at least 10 million degrees in their Tokamak device, a magnetic "bottle" that contained hot gases just as the Sun achieves the same thing with its own gravity.
But the claims were doubted in the West - especially the USA - where their own devices were achieving, at the most, half those temperatures.
It led to Artsimovich - already impressed with the British team's long-established laser scattering measurement technique - requesting that Culham sent a group to "peer review" the findings.
"It was said that it was because of Bas Pease's socialist background that Artsimovich got in touch," Dr Forrest said.
"But Artsimovich was seen as a science god in Russia, he was in charge of almost everything. All he wanted was for us to go out there to test the results, to give them evidence of what they had achieved."
Dr Forrest, along with the other members of the "Culham Five," Harry Jones, the team's technician, Nicol Peacock, a highly respected spectroscopy specialist, theoretician Derek Robinson and technical innovator Peter Wilcock - then became one of the first Western scientists to go to the Soviet Union since the start of the Cold War.
"We were invited, Peter Wilcock and I, by the Committee for Science to spend a week in Russia to see what was needed," he says.
"From our point of view, we were there to suss the place out, to work out the technical problems - which we found turned out to be immense.
"It was at the height of the Cold War and it was a cabinet-cleared decision, because it was so sensitive.
"We were all nuclear people, all nuclear cleared. We were all primed to be caught up. It was quite a big decision to let us go in the first place."
After the initial exploratory trip, the Culham team set up a semi-permanent base in Russia where they - following extensive modifications to the work area and machine - began the unprecedented collaboration with Russian scientists.
But, despite the context, he said that the reaction was "supportive" from Russia.
The omnipresence of the KGB was "obvious" and "a bit disturbing", he said, involving relatively benign, if constant, monitoring, with Dr Forrest recalling a time a colleague muttered aloud that the bulb had gone out - only for it to be mysteriously replaced by lunchtime.
Given the context that the operation - conducting a nuclear fusion experiment during the frostiest of diplomatic environments - Dr Forrest said the group was treated "very well, like special guests."
He added: "We had always enjoyed a high degree of security. He [Artsimovich] wanted us to conduct the experiment and gave us what we needed to do it. They needed us, perhaps more than we needed them."
The team - together with Soviet scientists - recorded the first absolute measurements of the Tokamak's temperatures of 10 million degrees - and higher - within four months of setting up, corroborating what the Russians had claimed.
These results from the Culham team changed the course of nuclear fusion development.
Almost overnight, American and British fusion programmes and machines were changed to the Tokamak blueprint, a blueprint that remains as relevant today as it did in 1969, with a Tokamak at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy today.
Dr Forrest's role in arguably the pivotal moment in fusion power research went on to colour his work for another 23 years.
The father-of-three, grandfather and great-grandfather, who now lives in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, became a consultant for the Swedish Fusion Centre at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and worked in Rome on the Plasma Focus Device with laser diagnostics that had been developed at Culham.
He was also put in charge of a key team charged with developing advanced plasma diagnostics for the fusion research programme, and for commercial exploitation.
And the fall-out from the dramatic Russian success transformed the UK programme, which had suffered from years of political procrastination, leading to the world's biggest Tokamak being built at Culham.
Dr Forrest acknowledges that the Russian expedition was the moment in his career that cemented his achievement in the eyes of history.
"But the important thing was not the Russian thing, really" he says.
"Developing the first good scattering technique is something I'd be happy to have on my gravestone. It was the first scientific experiment of its kind."
He added: "There wasn't one particular moment you can 'remember' in perfecting the process. Probably there was a moment where we were viewing - through an oscilloscope - where there'd be some noise, or a signal come out.
"But you are never sure - first you must report it, and then test it again and again. It is not a eureka moment, it was more like a eureka dribble."
But, he admits, the "significance" of the Russian adventure is in evidence throughout fusion power collaboration today, paving the way for nuclear fusion power interdependence on an unprecedented scale.
He now acts as a consultant to ITER, a partnership between Russia, China, South Korea, the USA, Japan and the EU - which will utilise the Tokamak at its heart.
"It's true, we started it all!" he laughs.
"Everyone changed to Tokamaks after our results, but you have to give the Russians their credit for that.
"It was their machine, but it was something we were all involved in bringing about." * Lasers Across the Cherry Orchards is published by Tandem Press. Copies can be ordered online at www.mjforrest.co.uk HOW DOES A NUCLEAR FUSION REACTOR WORK? A FUSION reactor works by heating together two types of hydrogen: deuterium and tritium.
Deuterium occurs naturally in sea water and tritium can be made in the reactor itself.
To make it work takes millions of amps of electric current in a hollow "stainless steel doughnut" known as a Tokamak, to form a plasma of electrons and ions.
This high current can generate temperatures of 100 to 200 million degrees.
If laser light is scattered off the electrons the spectrum (or colour) of the light is changed. The higher the temperature, the faster the electrons move and the more the colour is changed. Scientists use a spectrometer to measure this, a system pioneered by Dr Forrest from 1964 at Culham.
Only a millionth of a millionth of the laser light is scattered from the electron, so lasers of hundreds of megawatts are needed to get a detectable signal.
FROM CHEMISTRY SET TO BIG BANG MIKE The Laser is, coincidentally, not the only world-class scientist to come out of the small town of Aberdare.
Despite having a population of only about 32,000, it has produced two scientists who changed the world - the other being the current head of the Swiss-based Large Hadron Collider experiment, Dr Lyn "The Atom" Evans.
The son of a miner, Dr Evans gained worldwide recognition as the man switching on the giant particle accelerator in 2008, billed as the re-creation of the conditions at the Big Bang.
He - like Mike The Laser - honed his passion for science at his home in Aberdare, with mini-explosions using his chemistry sets.
He was educated at Aberdare Boys' Grammar School, where he developed an interest in physics. He then read chemistry at Swansea University before switching to physics in his second year.
After taking a first class honours degree he went on to study for a PhD between 1966 and 1969.
Through a connection with Cern he was invited to go as a visitor and then became a fellow, joining a project run by Sir John Adams building particle accelerators.
In 1994 he became involved in the planning of the project which would become the Large Hadron Collider, and in light of his leadership role in the LHC, the press christened him "Evans the Atom".
Dr Mike Forrest * Dr Mike Forrest at work in a laboratory. Even as a boy of 8 in Aberdare, Cynon Valley, he was stripping and rebuilding engines. With his knowledge of optics he was made for Britain's top secret research on nuclear fusion
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|Publication:||Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)|
|Date:||Nov 3, 2011|
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