UC Berkeley graduates make the news frequently, but you won’t see the following story in your alumni magazine. In September of 1968, Dr. Pedro Leonardo Mascheroni received his graduate degree in Physics; in September 2010, he received an indictment from the US government for 22 counts of various flavors of conspiracy and fraud. His wife, Marjorie, is also a Cal alum (B.A. in Fine Art) and is included as a defendant in the case.
As with the best legal dramas, the two sides of this story are drastically different. First, from the defendant’s point of view: Dr. Mascheroni, who goes by “Leo” according to the NY Times and “Luke” according to the indictment, worked as a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1979 to 1988. His goal, then and now, was to solve the energy crisis by developing nuclear fusion technology. He proposed building a laser which would be lower energy and cheaper than other potential laser-fusion systems which were eventually funded.
The science of nuclear fusion is way too cool to give just a cursory explanation, so check back for a future blog post on that subject. Suffice it to say that if Mascheroni’s dream had become a reality and his laser had been successful, the energy supply of the future would look very, very different from what it is today. When his idea went unfunded, he began appealing directly to members of Congress. Over the years, he became increasingly frustrated and fixated on the goal of a cheap, clean energy source.
Now, from the court’s perspective: Mascheroni and his wife were both employees of LANL, and they had access to classified data involving nuclear weapons research. The prosecutors claim that in his desperation to find a patron for his fusion work, Mascheroni claimed that he could deliver nuclear weapons technology to Venezuela. Unfortunately for him, the Venezuelan representative turned out to be an undercover FBI agent.
Reading about this case made me feel like I was back in the Cold War era, despite the fact that I wasn’t even alive for the interesting parts. Intrigue and deception are not usually qualities one associates with scientific research. The case escalated to this level because of the connection to weapons and national security, but for Mascheroni, it was always about energy. So for all of you grad students out there interested in renewable energy, let this serve as a reminder not to take your own project too seriously.