Theory vs reality

A company in Culham – First Light Fusion – has just shown that it is possible to create nuclear fusion through an entirely different method. The conventional method, currently being trialled down the road in Culham by the Joint European Torus (JET), recently broke the world record for fusion. But even it is a long a way from making a viable power plant. First Light Fusion only managed to create 50 neutrons through its new method.

Dr Nick Hawker, the founder of the company, said:

“We’re not daft. We know that 50 neutrons is not very much.” The point is though, he said, it matches their calculations and validates the approach. “The important thing is that the measured amount of fusion agrees very closely to the predicted amount from a simulation,” he said. Now Hawker said they are looking to speed up the projectile. With more pressure, yield should increase greatly.

‘Light at the end of the tunnel in nuclear fusion’, The Times, 5 April 2022

The Times report:

Dr Richard Kembleton, from Eurofusion, the European consortium of fusion researchers, said that what is key now is to see how those experiments progress.

“This is good news for First Light, as it proves their approach can produce implosions as their models predict,” he said. “It’s scaling this up to the complex and precise geometries they show in their simulations, which is the really tricky bit.”

Shocking absolutely no one here, I don’t mind admitting I know nothing about nuclear fusion. Relatives of mine are working in the field – at one of the aforementioned establishments – but it is all a mystery to me. In the broadest and most general way, I just about understand what they’re trying to do and why. And ‘just about’ is doing a lot of heavy-lifting in that sentence. So, I’m not really here to talk about nuclear fusion because… well, for much the same reason that you don’t invite physicists and engineers to come and deliver talks on philosophy, theology or history.

My interest in this story is to do with proving theory and making things work in reality. The company have managed to prove the theory that firing a projectile at a pellet of fuel can create fusion. They are hoping that scaling up the speed of the projectile and the size of the fuel will create bigger amounts of energy. The theoretical advantage this method has is, as the owner of the company suggests, ‘If we can get the core physics to work, which I think we can, it potentially has a much faster trajectory to a power plant. The engineering is much simpler. The physics is simpler.’ But therein lies the trouble. They have managed to prove the theory. They have created fusion on a tiny scale. The big question is whether it can be scaled up and if this new proven theory will actually work in practice at the larger scales required.

I think this is interesting because it is an issue we frequently see in the church. Many of us have our grand theories about the way things should be. The church, we think, ought to operate in particular ways. Certain programmes should exist. We have certain methods and ideas that we think should be implemented. Essentially, we think we have a clear view on the theory. What we often aren’t so clear about is whether our theory – even if it has been tested and applied on a small scale – will work in practice at the scale required to make it helpful or in different contexts where the theory can’t be made a reality.

It always interests me the number of people who assume the church must be just the way I like it, in every respect, simply because I am the pastor. Few seem to recognise that things may not be how I would ideally have them because the realities of life where we are make what might seem optimal unattainable. There are the realities of different people with different views on things that, whilst not how I would do them, are not things to pick fights about. There are the realities of things that would be lovely – like A-grade music – but not possible because of the lack of willing and suitably talented musicians to achieve it. There are the things that I would do in theory, but that aren’t viable in practice. Either because we can’t scale them or we don’t have the appropriate people or resources to achieve them. Then there are all the context specific things. Things that you might do in one place but, whilst they work really well there, won’t work very well in any other.

None of that, of course, is to complain that the church isn’t exactly how I would have it. In another sense, it is exactly as I would have it inasmuch as it is what it is and I am perfectly content with the church the Lord has given me to shepherd. And I really love our people and would hate to impose on them my way of doing things – particularly if they are not specifically biblical things, just preferential things I think are best – and ride roughshod over what many of them would prefer in the process. It is just to say, sometimes what I would design from scratch given a blank sheet of paper and unlimited resources is not often what is possible or realistic. The theory might be sound, but the reality impracticable or whatever.

This is the nature of churches. We may have big ideas or grand theories about the way things should be, but ultimately we have to deal in realities. Some things may not be possible in a small church context. Some things will be much harder to implement in multicultural settings. Some things will necessarily be sacrificed (like quality some of the time) if you are serious about training people. Sometimes our ambitions, ideas and plans might be great in theory, but they are not workable in reality. And just as that is true for church leaders – and we have to come to terms with it – church members do well to realise it too.