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Coming in out of the cold: nuclear fusion, for real

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In addition, I have long, fine hair, and was often made a victim of the Van de Graf generator - the little metal ball with a rubber belt inside it that creates enough static electricity to make your hair stand on end. Yeesh.

Anyway, hopefully you remember the lesson that two objects having different electrical charges (positive and negative) attract one another, while those with the same charge repel. It's a basic law of electricity, and it definitely holds true when two protons try to get close together. Protons have positive charges, and they repel each other. Somehow, in order for fusion to work, you've got to overcome this repulsive electrical force and get the things to stick together.

Here's where an amazing and mysterious force comes in that, although we don't think about it in our day-to-day lives, literally holds our matter together. There are four universal forces of nature, two of which you're probably familiar with: gravity and electromagnetism.

But there are two other forces that really only come in to play inside atomic nuclei: the strong and weak nuclear forces (and yes, the strong force is the stronger of the two, the weak is weaker. Scientists really have a way with names, dont they?) I'm going to focus on the strong force, as that's the one responsible for nuclear fusion.

The strong force is an attractive force between protons and neutrons - it wants to stick them together. If the strong force had its way, the entire universe would be one big super-dense ball of protons and neutrons, one big atomic nucleus, in fact.

Fortunately, the strong force only becomes strong at very small scales: about one millionth billionth of a meter. Yes, that's 0.000000000000001 meters. Any farther away, and the strong force loses its grip. But if you can get protons and neutrons that close together, the strong force becomes stronger than any other force in nature, including electricity.

That's important- all protons have the same charge, so they'd like to fly away from each other. But if you can get them close together, inside the volume of an atomic nucleus, the strong force will bind them together.

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