Visionary Physicist's Crusade Serves As Lesson In Futility

PRINCETON, NJ.—Drop a certain name in conversation with a fusion scientist or a Department of Energy official and you’re likely to observe an unusual reaction. Rolling eyes and sighs are common responses; mild cases of apoplexy are not unknown. Usually composed researchers become animated, others simply nod their heads knowingly. Rarely does the name pass without comment. The name is Bogdan Maglich, and the man who owns it claims he’s just a scientist with a relatively mo

Robert Crease
Nov 26, 1989

PRINCETON, NJ.—Drop a certain name in conversation with a fusion scientist or a Department of Energy official and you’re likely to observe an unusual reaction. Rolling eyes and sighs are common responses; mild cases of apoplexy are not unknown. Usually composed researchers become animated, others simply nod their heads knowingly. Rarely does the name pass without comment.

The name is Bogdan Maglich, and the man who owns it claims he’s just a scientist with a relatively modest request: He’d like $2 million with which to build a fusion device smaller than a cubic centimeter, with an output of one kilowatt and practically no radioactivity. He calls it a “migma,” and he says that hundreds of migmas can be strung together to form enormous power plants.

Maglich is sure it will work. So sure, in fact, that he has formed a company, Advanced Physics Corp., to promote the idea. Its board of directors includes two Nobel Prize winners—Murray Gell-Mann of the California Institute of Technology and Glenn Seaborg of the University of California, Berkeley.

But despite such eminent support, Maglich’s scheme has been rejected 15 times in the past 16 years by DOE. Nor has it gained widespread support among Maglich’s peers, some of whom say that the physicist’s claims are exaggerated, that he seldom admits to his errors, that he often threatens to sue those who disagree with him, and that he offers conspiracy theories to account for his failures, all of which are likely to alienate funding agencies. His peers suggest, in short, that he may very well be his own worst enemy.

Maglich was born in Yugoslavia in 1928, graduated from the University of Belgrade in 1951, and received his Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1959. In Cambridge he was known as a bright, successful student, though somewhat hot-tempered and occasionally less than reliable. “He did good work,” says Martin Deutsch, an MIT physicist whom Maglich calls his godfather. “But he could easily fool himself.”

In 1959, Maglich joined Louis Alvarez’s staff at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. There he made an important discovery—the omega particle, the first of a new class of mesons, called “resonances,” that have extremely short lifetimes. Moving to CERN in 1963, he invented the “missing mass spec-trometer,” a new type of detector, with which he uncovered evidence of several more resonances.

In 1967 Maglich gained notoriety when he claimed to have shown that a meson called the “A2” was not a single particle but a twin. If true, the result would have doomed the still-controversial quark model. But attempts to confirm the A2 splitting failed. The case proved to be among the most prominent missteps of the high-energy physics community in the last quarter-century, with much money and effort expended on rectifying it. Maglich, however, refused to relent, even in the face of evidence that the community regarded as definitive. He challenged the competency of his critics. Even today, he calls the A2 splitting “still an open issue.” Some of his peers have never forgiven him his stubbornness on this issue.

Leaving CERN in the middle of the A2 controversy, Maglich retumed to the U.S. and wound up at Rutgers University in 1969, where he developed the migma concept. While designing small colliding beam accelerators, he decided to give up trying to force particles into a single path. Instead he let them spiral about the center in a jumble of overlapping orbits. To test how many collisions actually occurred, he planned to run deuterons through a prototype. Fusion between colliding pairs would create neutrons, which would be detectable on the outside. “The moment I calculated the collision rate,” he said, “I saw it could produce net energy.” He called his device a “migma,” after the Greek word for mixture.

Maglich supported his original research on an annual $150,000 grant from Rutgers, but in 1972 he submitted a $3 million request to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) [now the Energy Department]. Soon after that he met Vladimir Zworykin of RCA, who had endured years of skepticism on the way to becoming “the father of television.” Zworykin advised Maglich to go private and seek investors to support his research. Lured by visions of a revolution in energy generation, Maglich resigned from Rutgers, never to return to academia. On July 24, 1973, the two scientists founded the Fusion Energy Corp. (FEC) in Zworykin’s home in Princeton, NJ.

The company’s progress was uneven, at best. AEC, expressing scientific doubts, rejected the grant proposal. Summa, the late Howard Hughes’ corporation, commissioned a film of the laboratory so that the project could be pitched to Hughes as a possible investment. But Hughes died before any money materialized. Nevertheless, the Saudi Arabian government gave FEC $1.5 million as part of a contract that gave the Saudis a percentage of the company and obligated FEC to build laboratories in that country should Maglich’s migma concept work. And the Saudis promised $50 million more if the idea could attain "official scientific and political recognition” in the U.S.

Many scientists say that funding agencies might have been more sympathetic to a migma research proposal if Maglich hadn’t pushed so hard to sell his idea as a commercially viable engineering project.

“Maglich’s proposals have not been to do research, but for money " to build energy systems. And the reviewers have found that [overly] optimistic,” says William Dove, chief of DOE’s advanced fusion concepts branch.

Impressive Talk

Maglich’s bubbling enthusiasm, his boundless energy, his talk of cheap and clean fusion power have impressed environmentalists, businessmen, popular science writers and others for almost two decades. Science News wrote sympathetically of Maglich’s plans (103:352-3 1973), reporting speculations by FEC employees that homes of the future would be powered by air conditioner-sized migma cells in the basement. A 1983 United Press International story reported Maglich’s claim that a clean fusion plant “capable of producing power for a city, of 1 million people could be built for $600 a kilowatt and produce power at 1.2 cents per kilowatt hour.” Omni (9:82, 1987) proclaimed, “Bogdan Maglich knows how to make nonradioactive nuclear power.”

But Maglich’s ideas have won scant acceptance among his peers. In a 1976 funding proposal to a short-lived AEC successor known as the Energy Research Development Agency (ERDA), for instance, he described the migma program as unique among fusion schemes in its ability to provide clean power generation. A review panel flatly stated that the claim was “false” and also complained that Maglich’s company spent a “disproportionate” amount of its resources in self-promotion rather than research. It also cited the fact that FEC was paying a firm of professional management consultants to prepare a five-year plan at the same time the company had halted research because it couldn’t afford the liquid helium that was needed to run the magnet.

Maglich is undaunted by the criticism. “We devastated them in our rebuttal,” he says.

His supporters are less confident of his claims. But they say that the details matter less than the concept. Says one Maglich associate, “Yeah, Maglich may have exaggerated, but so have the [traditional fusion] people. And they don’t have the excuse that they’ve been underfunded.” Still, the inflated claims have, perhaps unjustifiably, fed suspicion about Maglich’s entire project.

Maglich’s tactic of threatening people with lawsuits is unusual, even in our increasingly litigious society. The Particle Data Group at the University of California, Berkeley, for instance, is a highly respected organization that keeps lists and files on - all known subatomic particles. In 1988, following a reorganization of their lists, Maglich threatened to sue them for renaming some particles he claimed to have discovered. Their behavior, he charged, “smacks of an unprecedented governmental interference in science.” To appease him, the group added several references to Maglich’s work.

Fusion Power Associates is a nonprofit organization based in Gaithersburg, Md., that is devoted to promoting fusion power and tracking its developments around the world. Last year, Maglich wrote the organization to protest its newsletter’s coverage of his work. “Unfair reporting can cause financial damages to small R&D companies, which are then forced to seek remedies under the law,” he warned.

Attracting Attention

Indeed, of the scientists interviewed for this article who are not affiliated with Maglich, a majority—nearly a dozen—say they have been threatened with legal action by Maglich and his lawyers at some point.

Maglich, the son of a lawyer, contends that “there’s nothing wrong with using the courts. The courts were made to protect the small guy against the ruthlessness of the big institutions. An elephant does not notice when he has stepped on your foot. You have to scream as loudly as you can to attract his attention.”

Although he’s never actually sued anyone, the threats have attracted attention and built up a barrier of resentment against Maglich in the community—and among potential allies. “It’s not how things are done, okay?” growls one old fusion hand.

Most audaciously of all, Maglich has assailed the federal funding agencies themselves. In 1976, when ERDA began to assemble a technical review panel to consider Maglich’s proposal, he requested that no individuals from its 1972 review panel be included. ERDA agreed to comply. When a list of prospective panel members was circulated, Maglich objected to a certain member. That member wasn’t chosen for the panel.

When the final report was unfavorable, Maglich prepared a rebuttal. The rebuttal was also reviewed and negatively evaluated; there is a quiet-note of weariness in ERDA’s final letter to Maglich, which reminds him of the large amount of federal resources expended on evaluating the migma concept, including 1,250 man-hours by the panel and 700 by ERDA’s Division of Magnetic Fusion Energy.

Still dissatisfied, Maglich secured a meeting with the General Accounting Office (GAO), the federal watchdog agency, -with the help of a sympathetic lobbyist for environmental causes. The GAO’s report did not concern the feasibility of the migma concept, but recommended that the Energy Department (as it had now become) review its handling of unsolicited proposals.

More severe criticisms of DOE followed. In the early 1980s, Maglich told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the Soviet Union, impressed by his work and that of a graduate student, had canceled its entire tokamak program. (Tokamaks are large machines that use powerful magnetic fields to contain a plasma in which, a sus tamed fusion reaction can occur.) DOE, Maglich asserted, has been deliberately misleading Congress by not revealing that fact and by using the existence of the Soviet program to pressure Congress to fund the U.S. tokamak program.

Given the recent construction of two large Soviet. tokamaks, colleagues find this idea ludicrous. Nevertheless, in an unpublished article circulated within his company last year, Maglich suggests that the tokamak machines are a Soviet plot, and that opposition to his ideas is ultimately Soviet-inspired. Maglich likens tokamaks to the “enigma machine” of World War II, which Britain dropped behind enemy lines to confuse the Germans and cause them to waste time and effort on a fruitless quest to understand coding technology.

Whatever the merits of Maglich’s arguments, insinuating that U.S. funding agencies are Soviet influenced is hardly likely to speed the cash flow.

Special Talent

“I know he has brought it on himself,” says MIT’s Deutsch, “but Bogdan is getting lynched. Nobody who comes up with a rational piece of physics ought to be treated the way he has. It’s true that his claims are excessive and that finally there is nothing earthshaking in them. And it’s true that he has a special talent for antagonizing people. Nevertheless, he does have some good ideas, and they ought to be funded. If Bogdan had been within the establishment, or at least not antagonized it, [his work] might well have a significant contribution to the mainstream fusion effort.”

Does Maglich’s failure to receive DOE funding reveal a breakdown in the system? Not according to one prominent high-energy physicist. “I can believe that a bright, charmsmatic, clever, and energetic guy like Maglich can convince private citizens and politicians to fund him. But I get suspicious when he can’t convince those [DOE] panels.”

Maglich, meanwhile, is concentrating his efforts on his new company. Because, he says, his selling of the migma approach as clean technology has made fusion a dirty word, the new enterprise has been named the Advanced Physics Corp. Its 10 scientists and staff members operate on a shoestring budget, because the Saudi money has dried up and new investors have been slow to materialize. Headquarters are on the second floor of a building in a research park in Princeton, while first-floor rooms intended for a lab remain barren. Maglich is putting the finishing touches on. plans for a “microcollider,” a migma of less than 1 cubic centimeter volume. And he remains certain be will eventually triumph over the system.

“Once, when things looked very bad,” Maglich says, “Zworykin told me that everything was ‘just right.’ I asked what he meant, and he said that things were running just as they typically do for a radical new invention; you face long delays, you cannot get money, people are against you, you lose all your friends. Whenever I run into trouble I console myself with that remark, and it inspires me to redouble my efforts.”

Robert P. Crease teaches philosophy of science at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.