For some 50 years, scientists have been studying magnetically confined plasmas with an eye toward producing fusion energy. But understanding the behavior of such plasmas has proved to be a scientific challenge of the highest order. (For a review of the basics, see boxes 1 and 2.) A perhaps provocative comparison with biological organisms or Earth’s climate system might shed light on why. All three systems are delicate and heterogeneous, maintained by a myriad of nonlinearly coupled processes in a self-organized state very far from statistical equilibrium. Moreover, those processes occur over a vast range of time and space scales.

Just as biology has developed subfields such as neurology, physiology, and cardiology, and just as climate science has developed independent models for the atmosphere, sea ice, and land mass, fusion science has developed subfields like plasma microturbulence theory, magneto-hydrodynamics (MHD), and transport theory to study phenomena that take place...

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