In 2002, nuclear engineer Rusi Taleyarkhan and five collaborators published the results of their acoustic cavitation experiments, also known as "sonofusion."
The group comprised Taleyarkhan, JaeSeon Cho and Colin West, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Robert C. Block and Richard T. Lahey Jr., professors at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Robert I. Nigmatulin, a professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences. The group has 10 published papers in peer-reviewed journals on the topic.
Taleyarkhan was born in 1953 in Dohad, a small town in the Mumbai area of India. He was awarded a scholarship from the prestigious Tata organization in India. In 1977, he moved to the United States and earned his master’s degree in business and his doctorate in nuclear engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. As soon as he was eligible, in 1988, he became a U.S. citizen.
Rusi Taleyarkhan with benchtop setup used for sonofusion experiments at Purdue University
Taleyarkhan and his group claimed to have achieved the elusive goal of creating nuclear fusion through a process known as sonoluminescence, the process of transforming sound waves into light. Using sonoluminescence to create nuclear fusion in cavitating liquids had been theorized for decades. But Taleyarkhan and his team said they did it first, in a small glass chamber less than a foot high.
Taleyarkhan is a full professor in the Purdue University School of Nuclear Engineering. When he was a Distinguished Scientist at Oak Ridge, one of his more-interesting inventions was the technology behind variable-velocity bullets, the real-life concept depicted in the television series “Star Trek,” known by the familiar phrase "set phasers to stun." After a journalist wrote a news story about his invention, the government classified the research. Before Oak Ridge, Taleyarkhan worked for Westinghouse Electric Corp.
Creating nuclear fusion in a benchtop experiment was and still is a radical idea, particularly when nations around the world had spent, and are still spending, tens of billions of dollars in experimental fusion concepts for million-dollar devices the size of small houses. As the story goes, nobody has been able to repeat the Taleyarkhan group's sonofusion experiment. This is a problem because, if a scientific claim can't be independently replicated, it suggests but does not prove that the claim is wrong.
Visiting scientists have successfully performed the experiment in Taleyarkhan's lab at Purdue, but these do not qualify as independent replications for most people. The conclusion that most people typically draw is that the claim is not real and that Taleyarkhan and his collaborators falsified the results or consistently made mistakes.
People generally assume that the six scientists fooled independent auditors at Oak Ridge, deceived Oak Ridge management, on two occasions fooled visiting professors at Purdue University who used Taleyarkhan's apparatus, and on a third occasion, during a review at Purdue, pulled the wool over the eyes of a dozen peers who came to Purdue to see the experiment in action.
Aside from all these witnesses to the successful experiments, the fraud conclusion is simple enough. Hardly a year goes by without a news report of a headstrong scientist whose extraordinary results could not be repeated, and he or she is found guilty of fraud or misconduct. But that's not what happened in this case. The real story is far more interesting. In the last five years, New Energy Times has filed and obtained two dozen Freedom of Information Act requests on this subject and has received 4,000 pages of responsive documents. This article provides a summary.
When Taleyarkhan and his group told lab managers at Oak Ridge in the summer of 2001 that they were seeing, for the first time, evidence of fusion from their sonofusion experiments, the managers were skeptical. The managers asked two Oak Ridge physicists, Michael Saltmarsh and Daniel Shapira, to verify the Taleyarkhan group's results.
Saltmarsh had been the director of Fusion Energy and the Fusion Program at Oak Ridge. This program had nothing to do with sonofusion and everything to do with the traditional multi-billion-dollar fusion research programs. Oak Ridge management rehired him as a consultant to review the sonofusion experiments.
The internal verifications — including one by Michael Murray, an Oak Ridge tritium expert — confirmed valid evidence of nuclear reactions. Nevertheless, Shapira and Saltmarsh, who were members of the Physics Division, tried to convince management to block the forthcoming publication by the Taleyarkhan group, whose members were from the Engineering Technology Division.
Management sided with the engineering group. When the group's paper published in Science, the news generated a lot of excitement. Actually, the paper generated excitement before it published. Two prominent physicists, Richard Garwin, the former director of IBM’s Thomas J. Watson research lab, and William Happer, a senior member of the Princeton Plasma Physics lab and a former director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, wrote to Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy and tried to convince him not to publish the paper. Kennedy did not appreciate the interference, as he later wrote in an editorial.
Soon after the paper published, Taleyarkhan was recruited to Purdue University by the head of the School of Nuclear Engineering, Lefteri Tsoukalas.
The Fight Continues
Shapira and Saltmarsh didn't stop. Several months after the Taleyarkhan group's paper published in Science, the two physicists published a paper in Physical Review Letters titled "Nuclear Fusion in Collapsing Bubbles - Is It There? An Attempt to Repeat an Experiment That Reported D-D Fusion in Bubble Collapse Induced by Cavitation in Deuterated Acetone."
In the paper, Saltmarsh and Shapira asserted that they had attempted to repeat the Taleyarkhan group's experiment and that they had used more-precise instruments than those used by the Taleyarkhan group. The physicists wrote that they found no nuclear evidence; therefore, they implied, the Taleyarkhan group's claims were not valid. Until 2013, this was the public's understanding of the story. There are two important points to recognize about the Saltmarsh and Shapira paper.
First, this is a misapplication of scientific protocol. Correct protocol for scientific skepticism directly identifies failures or mistakes in an original experiment, its data, or analysis. Nevertheless, the supposition that one scientist’s failure negatively affects another scientist’s success is a common misunderstanding that has been around for at least a hundred years. Therefore, it was natural, but wrong, for readers of Saltmarsh and Shapira's paper to assume that their alleged failure meant that the Taleyarkhan group's experiment was, by inference, also a failure.
But here's the real kicker: Saltmarsh and Shapira performed no such experiment. Daniel Kulp, the editor of Physical Review Letters, is aware of this discrepancy, and he has declined to issue an editorial note to correct the record.
In 2013, New Energy Times interviewed Shapira. Here's what really happened at Oak Ridge. Shapira brought his own neutron detector to the Taleyarkhan group's laboratory one day and took measurements of one of the group’s experiments. In fact, the data Shapira independently took confirmed the measurements of excess neutrons on the Taleyarkhan group's device.
Saltmarsh and Shapira also knew that the sonofusion device had produced tritium, an unmistakable fingerprint of a nuclear reaction. All of the original documents are available at the New Energy Times Web site. How Saltmarsh and Shapira turned positive data into the perception of negative data is precisely explained in this 12-part report.
Difficult to Repeat
The Taleyarkhan group's experiment was never easy to repeat because it was highly dependent on enclosures custom-made by glassblowers at Oak Ridge. Two of his collaborators, Richard Lahey and Colin West, helped explain the challenge.
"Small differences in tolerances and construction details," Lahey wrote, "affect the sonic field which is compressing the bubble clusters. We succeeded at Oak Ridge, but other researchers are unlikely to be as tenacious as Rusi was. Indeed, to move forward with sonofusion, a more robust test section design will be required."
"Besides Rusi's admirable tenacity," West wrote, "we had extensive knowledge of the behavior
and theory of these cylindrical resonant cavities. I had steadily developed and improved them after designing and building the first one, using a magnetostrictive driver, in about 1962."
For example, one of the challenges was that, if the walls of the glass chambers were too thick, the chambers would not be able to flex during the cavitation and would break. If the walls were too thin, they would not be able to sustain the action from the cavitation and would break.
But once the glassblowers sent an enclosure over to the engineering group that worked, and the scientists could see the proper bubble formation with the naked eye, they could perform multiple successful runs with the same chamber. The chambers continued to work until some other stress factor during the experiments caused a failure.
Here's a video of what the experiment looks like when it is configured and operating properly. For comparison, here's a video, shot at the University of California, Los Angeles, of what the experiment looks like when it is not configured and not operating properly. At Oak Ridge, staff also filmed Taleyarkhan operating the experiment and collecting data during a normal run and during a control run. As in any good experiment, the video shows positive signals when the required stimuli are present and null signals when they are not present.
During the time when Tsoukalas was recruiting Taleyarkhan to come to Purdue — his first academic foray — Tsoukalas directed several members of his staff and students to attempt a replication of the sonofusion experiment.
At first, they failed. Then, two students drove from Indiana to Tennessee to the Oak Ridge laboratory. They were trained by members of the engineering group and brought back with them to Purdue a glass chamber made by the Oak Ridge glassblowers. That made all the difference.
Under Tsoukalas' direction, in the fall of 2003, before Taleyarkhan began working at Purdue, Tsoukalas' group succeeded: They saw excess neutrons and significant levels of tritium. Taleyarkhan was visiting the school and was present as an observer when they achieved the first of many positive runs. Soon, one of the older scientists in the group, Franklyn Clikeman, argued about and disputed the data with other members of the group. Gradually, over a period of months, long after the tritium samples had been measured — according to protocol, within 24 hours of their removal from the experiment — Clikeman remeasured the same by-now-stale samples and got lower values. This is how he changed the positive data to null results. Despite Tsoukalas' enthusiasm for the results he at the time knew to be positive, he was not able to get Clikeman to change his mind, and the group's work went nowhere.
Tsoukalas’ Group Splinters
The group broke apart, and one of the members, postdoctoral researcher Yiban Xu, started his own set of experiments. Xu repeated the sonofusion experiment successfully and confirmed the results.
When Xu attempted to publish his work in Physical Review Letters, journal reviewers told him that he needed to have someone double-check his numbers. By this time, Xu had started working under Taleyarkhan, and Xu asked Taleyarkhan for permission to have graduate student Adam Butt cross-check Xu's numbers. Taleyarkhan contacted Butt, and he agreed to work with Xu. The numbers checked out, and Xu added Butt as an author on the paper. This is the customary protocol and a standard of scientific ethics. The Xu and Butt paper published in a peer-reviewed journal in 2005.
Strife in the School
In the middle of all this, Taleyarkhan saw that Tsoukalas was running the school in ways that were ethically unacceptable to him. Taleyarkhan told Tsoukalas he would not support Tsoukalas' actions. The issues typically involved decisions about advancement and tenure of junior professors, matters decided by a democratic vote among more-senior professors.
Signed and sworn statements by the two administrative assistants for Tsoukalas, Darla Mize and Erica Timmerman, revealed serious problems in the way Tsoukalas was running the school. A signed statement by Jere Jenkins, the director of Radiation Laboratories at Purdue, makes similar assertions. Mize and Jenkins listed examples of what they called fraudulent behavior by Tsoukalas. Mize and Timmerman wrote that Tsoukalas also made racially abusive comments about Taleyarkhan and other scientists of Indian descent. All of the statements are available at the New Energy Times Web site. An attorney representing Tsoukalas contacted New Energy Times. He argued that the signed, sworn statements were technically not affidavits.
Not Worth Repeating
In parallel with the scientific and political turmoil at Purdue, two of Taleyarkhan's competitors, Seth Putterman, a theoretical physicist at UCLA, and Kenneth Suslick, a chemist at the University of Illinois, came into the picture. They each had been attempting to achieve sonofusion for many years, and they were friends and worked well together. Putterman had been awarded a patent for sonofusion even though he had never successfully demonstrated it. Putterman went on record in 2002, after the Taleyarkhan group's paper published, with dismissive comments about the Taleyarkhan group's achievement. Putterman said that he did not intend to try and repeat the experiment himself.
'We will not morph our project in order to reproduce an experiment that provides no new evidence for sonofusion," Putterman told Physics World.
Money Changes Everything
Nevertheless, two years later, in October 2004, when BBC’s “Horizon” television program offered Putterman $70,000 to repeat Taleyarkhan's experiment for television, he did attempt to reproduce the experiment, and, as he told the New York Times, he had fun doing so.
"I'm desperate for money, and here's a chance to infuse my laboratory with overhead-free money," Putterman said. "We had fun."
The conclusion was inevitable, and the cameras filmed a smiling Putterman saying that he couldn't reproduce the experiment; therefore, Putterman implied, it was not real. The BBC called Taleyarkhan a dreamer. Putterman implied that Taleyarkhan couldn't distinguish between science and religion.
Seth Putterman (Scenes from BBC Horizon broadcast)
"Nothing is too wonderful to be true that it can't be reproduced in another experiment," Putterman told the BBC, "and this is what distinguishes science from religion."
Putterman Fails Again
BBC said that it filmed the UCLA experiments Oct. 7-10, 2004. According to data and e-mails sent to the BBC from UCLA, the experiments finished on Nov. 4, 2004.
But the BBC program didn't air until February 2005. Sometime in October or early November 2004, Putterman offered to repeat the experiment that UCLA had just failed for the BBC for the Defense Advanced Research Project Activity.
On Nov. 16, 2004, at the Acoustical Society of America in San Diego, Putterman and Suslick asked Taleyarkhan to collaborate with them on the proposed federally funded attempt. Taleyarkhan had no idea what Putterman had just done with or told the BBC film crew. In the spirit of cooperation, Taleyarkhan agreed.
On Dec. 8, 2004, Tony Tether, the head of DARPA, approved Putterman's idea, and DARPA requested formal proposals. On Dec. 23, 2004, Putterman submitted his proposal and asked for $5.2 million. Suslick submitted a proposal and requested $900,000. Larry Crum, a research professor at the University of Washington who was apparently invited to join the effort, submitted a proposal for $800,000. Taleyarkhan asked for $1.4 million.
The Office of Naval Research, on behalf of DARPA, funded only the first phase of the research, totaling $812,000, to be distributed among all of them. To little surprise, Putterman and Suslick failed to replicate the DARPA-sponsored Oak Ridge sonofusion experiment.
Report to Federal Government
In their final report, Putterman and Suslick said that their failure occurred because the Taleyarkhan group's experiment was, effectively, not real. They told the DARPA program manager, William Coblenz, that their apparatus "was an exact duplicate of Taleyarkhan's reactor," and they implied that they had done an exact replication of the experiment. But it wasn't, and they hadn’t. There were multiple, crucial discrepancies in Putterman and Suslick's configuration, process, results and method of interpretation. Colin West and several members of the group helped to identify these discrepancies, as shown in this slide presentation.
"I and others," West wrote, "did everything possible to transfer the knowledge of how to build and operate a successful acoustic chamber, sending copious amounts of written material describing the pitfalls and solutions, as well as taking part in discussions. That group simply never seemed to understand that they had much to learn and that we had already learned it."
Accusations From Tsoukalas
On Oct. 14, 2005, while Putterman and Suslick were working on the DARPA-sponsored replication attempt, one of Tsoukalas' students, Joshua Walter, contacted Suslick, who began to coach Walter on how to proceed
Lefteri Tsoukalas |
with fraud allegations against people doing sonofusion research at Purdue. Suslick sent copies of Walter's e-mails to Putterman. Why Walter initiated contact with Suslick and provided him with internal data from Purdue is not publicly known. Why Walter went outside the university with his concern rather than filing a research integrity complaint with Purdue is not publicly known. New Energy Times contacted Walter, and he declined to comment.
On Nov. 21, 2005, Tsoukalas contacted Holly Adams, the inspector general for the Office of Naval Research. Adams' office was the responsible oversight authority for some of the federally sponsored sonofusion research. Some of Taleyarkhan's sonofusion work had also been funded by the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security for applications related to detection of weapons.
Tsoukalas sent Adams e-mails in which he made accusations of research misconduct against Taleyarkhan. Adams incorrectly believed that the experiments in question were performed under the authority of DARPA and ONR. A few months later, rumors began circulating in the School of Nuclear Engineering about Taleyarkhan.
Putterman and Suslick Snubbed
On Jan. 10, 2006, Physical Review Letters accepted for publication a new paper by the Taleyarkhan group. The paper reported two significant things. First, it said that the group had found a new method to induce sonofusion, making the evidence for its case even stronger. Second, the authors wrote that the 2005 paper from Xu and Butt was an independent confirmation of the Taleyarkhan group's results.
The news broke as soon as the Physical Review Letters paper was accepted. Putterman and Suslick were unhappy that they were not selected as reviewers for the paper, as reporter Mark Peplow wrote in Nature.
"Given that Suslick and Putterman have both investigated Taleyarkhan's past claims," Peplow wrote, "they think it odd that they were not consulted by the editors of Physical Review Letters about the paper. ‘There are other people who are very knowledgeable about this,’ comments Martin Blume, editor-in-chief of the American Physical Society.
"Taleyarkhan says that Suslick and Putterman are welcome to visit his lab to see the results for themselves. Both are eager to go as soon as possible. 'We look forward to seeing the experiment run,' says Putterman."
The next day, Jan. 11, 2006, William Coblenz, the DARPA program manager who had been overseeing this research, sent an angry e-mail to Taleyarkhan. He directed Taleyarkhan to host a meeting at Purdue.
"I wish you had given me some advanced warning of the new publication," Coblenz wrote. "This leaves me looking clueless and makes it harder for me to sell programs, particularly in respect to fusion research. [He included the link to the Peplow article.]
"I would like you and Seth to set up a time for a meeting at Purdue where I can see the reactor in operation. I then want to discuss the quickest way to duplicate these results in Seth's lab."
Two days later, on Jan. 13, 2006, Martin Lopez de Bertodano, a professor in the Purdue School of Nuclear Engineering, accused Taleyarkhan of research misconduct in a letter he sent to Mamoru Iishi, a senior professor in the school. Lopez de Bertodano also expressed his fears about the appearance of a forthcoming negative result from the DARPA-sponsored Putterman-Suslick attempt of the Oak Ridge experiment that had been under way since 2005. (The Putterman/Suslick paper had not yet published in a journal.)
"All this puts our school in a rather bad situation," Bertodano wrote, "but the situation will get a lot worse in the likely case that Drs. Putterman (UCLA) and Suslick (Illinois) publish a negative result of their confirmatory experiment."
Meanwhile, Eugenie Reich, a freelance reporter working for Nature, learned about the Xu/Butt published confirmation. At the time, Reich was working on a book about a science fraud that took place at Bell Laboratories and was identified by the lab in 2002.
|A fresh fraud story, particularly one that she might discover and break, would be a perfect addition for her book. She contacted Taleyarkhan's competitors Putterman and Suslick for help. In an e-mail to Suslick, Putterman summarized Reich's motives.
"I was contacted by a Eugenie Reich, freelance for Nature," Putterman wrote. "Her goal is to write a news story that will cause an investigation of Rusi Taleyarkhan."
On Feb. 3, 2006, Reich contacted Tsoukalas for the first time.
"I would like to confirm," Reich wrote, "that you were responsible for supervising the work of Adam Butt and Yiban Xu on the independent confirmatory experiment."
Eugenie Samuel Reich
Tsoukalas replied to Reich the same day that he had "absolutely nothing to do with the paper or the work reported."
Tsoukalas then sent Reich a copy of his Oct. 4, 2005, e-mail to Jay Gore, the former associate dean of Engineering, in which Tsoukalas said that the Xu/Butt paper was the result of multiple breaches of research integrity.
"There are very serious doubts," Tsoukalas wrote, "about the authenticity, ethics and validity of the paper published in the Journal of Nuclear Engineering and Design. At least one of the authors had nothing to do with it, and his name was put on the paper literally in the last minute."
Reich then contacted Butt without telling him exactly what was on her mind, as she explained to Tsoukalas. Butt contradicted Tsoukalas.
"About Adam Butt," Reich wrote, " I spoke to him today. I did not tell him why I am asking particular questions (anyway, he already knows that the community questions the independence of the experiment). So he says it is part of his master's thesis and that he co-wrote the paper with Xu, not with Rusi, and he thinks his name was on it from an earlier stage, [rather] than last-minute."
Reich also exchanged e-mails with Bertodano, Tsoukalas and Walter. They had told Reich that their sonofusion results were negative but not published. She pleaded with them to provide her with their unpublished results. According to Reich's e-mails, she believed that the story would lead to a finding of fraud or research misconduct for experiments that claimed to support sonofusion. Her presumptions required that Taleyarkhan had performed the research alone, that he had fooled his five collaborators, or that they conspired with him, none of which was true. Each of his collaborators has consistently and repeatedly affirmed the group's experiments and claims.
"Clearly, we do not know if professor Taleyarkhan has ever been faking data," Reich wrote, "and my story is unlikely even to mention this. But we all know that has to be considered as a possible interpretation. Another possible interpretation is he cut corners badly. In any major fraud or hoax case I have studied, and I studied a few, the press played a crucial role in letting things get out of hand."
Tsoukalas immediately realized that his group's 2003 confirmatory results were a liability, and he needed to push the crosshairs of Reich's scope away from him. He did two things.
First, on Feb. 7, 2006, Tsoukalas directed a senior professor in the school, Chan K. Choi, to convene an independent "fact-finding committee" to investigate the Xu/Butt replication. Tsoukalas directed Choi to include Clikeman — the professor who shifted the positive tritium data — in the tribunal. By that time, Clikeman was retired, as was Karl Ott, the third professor on the committee.
Purdue had protocols for handling matters of research integrity according to well-defined ethical and legal guidelines. The university had a dedicated person, Peter Dunn, assigned to such matters. The Tsoukalas committee circumvented and acted fully outside of these protocols.
During one of the committee's meetings, the members persuaded Butt to write a statement in which he denied having anything to do with sonofusion research. Butt provided either a paper document or e-mail to the committee even though he did his master's thesis on sonofusion. Butt's statement directly contradicted what he had told Reich on Feb. 6, but it now matched what Tsoukalas had told Gore and Reich. Part of the Butt document was written in first person. Part of it was written in third person. It wasn't signed. That document ended up on the New York Times' Web site.
Second, on Feb. 28, 2006, Tsoukalas and his colleagues quickly put together a paper, submitted it to Nuclear Technology, and reported their previous confirmatory tritium data as a failure to confirm. Tsoukalas told Reich on Feb. 25 that he planned to submit his "negative-results" paper.
Putterman Joins In
Putterman, after hearing that Reich's goal was to write a news story that would cause an investigation of Taleyarkhan, set the wheels in motion for his own contribution. He worked with his student Brian Naranjo to produce a theoretical analysis suggesting that the neutrons measured in all of the Taleyarkhan group's experiments were the result of fraud: spiking from californium-252, a radioactive source used in nuclear laboratories.
The meeting that Coblenz directed took place on March 1, 2006, and at about 2 in the afternoon, in front of a dozen visiting scientists and Coblenz, Putterman suggested that Taleyarkhan had produced the neutron data fraudulently.
Putterman's and Reich's actions were well-coordinated. Two hours later, Reich began contacting Taleyarkhan and asking him to comment on Putterman's fraud insinuation.
Suslick Joins In
On March 4, 2006, Suslick sent an e-mail to Putterman, Coblenz and Peter Schmidt (the ONR program manager).
"I'll add my thoughts on these issues, too," Suslick wrote, "now that I've caught up on sleep-debt. Unlike my abrasive good friend Seth, I am known for my gentle and well-mannered personality. So please normalize my response below.
"Rusi's performance at Purdue was a farce on par with a Uri Geller spoon-bending act. I'm not quite decided whether Rusi is also just fooling himself or has actually crossed the line into fraud. I strongly suspect the latter, but only because I give him the benefit of the doubt that he's not a complete moron."
Sometime after the March 1 meeting, Naranjo uploaded a manuscript with the spiking insinuation to the arXiv Web site. Manuscripts submitted to arXiv don't appear immediately; they are processed in a queue. On March 7, the manuscript came on line and went public. (Months later, the Naranjo manuscript passed peer review, as did a rebuttal paper, submitted by the Taleyarkhan group, that invalidated the UCLA assertions.)
Reich had four articles ready to go. In her own words, she became "part of a conspiracy." Nature published them less than 24 hours later, on the morning of March 8. One of the articles was about the UCLA fraud insinuation even though the manuscript was unreviewed and unpublished and the Taleyarkhan group had not been given the chance to offer a scientific rebuttal. Another article was about misconduct accusations from Tsoukalas. The other articles were about the difficulties of the science.
Reich was successful in her goal of causing an investigation. Within one hour, Reuters picked up Reich's articles and dropped the word "fraud" into the headline; the "Purdue/Taleyarkhan Fraud" story was read around the world.
Purdue had no choice. It began an investigation into the accusations against Taleyarkhan. But Tsoukalas was in hot water, too.
Tsoukalas Gets the Boot
On April 7, 2006, half of the School of Nuclear Engineering professors (six of the 12) sent Sally Mason, the provost, a letter.
"We the undersigned respectfully and with due regret wish to voice our no-confidence statement on the performance of the current Head of the School of Nuclear Engineering," the professors wrote. "Considering the spate of egregious developments that you are well aware of, Purdue University would be well-served by a prompt change in leadership of the School of Nuclear Engineering."
The next month, Dean Leah Jamieson started an unscheduled review of Tsoukalas' performance. Several months later, Jamieson removed Tsoukalas as the head of the school, although the Purdue news service said he resigned.
The first Purdue investigation against Taleyarkhan, initiated by Reich's news stories, turned up nothing. On Dec. 15, 2006, Purdue issued its inquiry report and fully exonerated Taleyarkhan of all allegations.
Tsoukalas was not satisfied. On Jan. 29, 2007, Tsoukalas filed a formal complaint with Adams, the Office of Naval Research inspector general, against Taleyarkhan and, along with it, accused the Purdue administration of a cover-up. Adams promptly directed Purdue to conduct another investigation.
Now, not only Taleyarkhan but also Purdue University was under scrutiny. In addition to Adams, Congress got involved and put pressure on Purdue. Congressman Brad Miller (D-NC), the chairman of the House Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee, directed the Purdue administration to investigate Taleyarkhan again and, this time, to do a better job.
"I sincerely hope that the next inquiry will be conducted in a manner worthy of your great institution," Miller wrote to the president of Purdue, Martin C. Jischke.
Between Adams and Miller, the government made it clear that, if Purdue could not effectively enforce research misconduct at Purdue, the university was at risk of losing all of its federal research money. Purdue had two choices. The first was to tell the truth: The central problems were with the school management, not Taleyarkhan, and they had already demoted Tsoukalas.
This would have been a major embarrassment to the school and the university. It also could have invited deeper federal investigations into potential fraud, waste and abuse, particularly of federal funding at the school.
The alternative was to find something negative against Taleyarkhan — a scientist whose work was not believed by many people in the scientific community — that might appease the government.
As directed, the second Purdue investigation against Taleyarkhan, for effectively the same accusations, went forward. In March 2007, Putterman sent in complaints and insinuations against Taleyarkhan to Adams. Suslick was bolder and sent in allegations of fraud. Even the reporter who started the whole thing, Reich — while she was still actively reporting on the story — sent in allegations and insinuations of research misconduct and fraud.
On April 6, 2007, Putterman also sent his and Suslick's DARPA final report to Adams. According to several documents written by Adams, including this slide presentation, Adams came to believe that the Putterman-Suslick failure occurred because the Taleyarkhan group's experiment simply didn't work.
During these tumultuous times, a senior professor in the Purdue Senate approached university President Jischke with his concerns about how Taleyarkhan was being treated. He was rebuffed. The professor, who was afraid to be identified, told Taleyarkhan, "I'm sorry, I can't get involved. I didn't have a choice. Jischke told me to stay the hell out of it."
In early 2008, despite the numerous accusations from reporter Reich, from Taleyarkhan's competitors, and from a few other people, Purdue was unable to find any evidence of fraud or even data manipulation. The committee didn't even find anything wrong with the successful Xu/Butt replication. But the Purdue investigation committee, under the direction of the university's only legal counsel (an outside law firm), created two allegations of research misconduct against Taleyarkhan. The committee then passed judgment on the two allegations.
If this sounds like a failure of due process, it was. In fact, the Purdue rules governing the process for research integrity committees did not allow committees to make their own allegations. After Taleyarkhan pointed out this breach to Purdue, the university modified its research integrity policy to allow committees to formulate and judge their own allegations.
Now to the allegations. First, the committee decided that, because Taleyarkhan thought and wrote that Xu and Butt had performed an independent replication, Taleyarkhan was guilty of research misconduct. Second, the committee decided that, because Taleyarkhan, on behalf of Xu, asked Butt to contribute to Xu's paper, Taleyarkhan was guilty of research misconduct.
A reasonable person might ask how such actions could be deemed research misconduct. On their own, they're not. To conclude that they were research misconduct, the Purdue committee had to associate these two actions with "intent to deceive."
Here is how they imagined Taleyarkhan's intent to deceive: a) they presumed that Taleyarkhan and his group's work was not scientifically credible, b) they presumed that Taleyarkhan and his group knew that it was not scientifically credible, and c) they asserted that Taleyarkhan's motive was to falsely establish scientific credibility for research that he knew was not credible.
If this sounds illogical and convoluted, it is. People may certainly disagree with Taleyarkhan and his colleagues' opinion about the independence, or lack thereof, of the Xu/Butt replication. But there can be no question about Taleyarkhan's opinion; to him and all of his co-authors, the Xu/Butt replication was an independent replication. Stating such an opinion is, ordinarily, a right granted not only by the First Amendment but also by the principles of academic freedom.
Xu's request to Taleyarkhan, and Taleyarkhan's request to Butt, formed a reasonable and appropriate course of action. Butt's inclusion as an author follows standard scientific norms, which encourage sharing credit with all participants in the scientific achievement, no matter how small a role they may have played.
How then was Purdue able to twist such ordinarily legitimate actions into research misconduct? In addition to circumventing its written policy and procedure, Purdue had to renumber, reorganize, re-label and, in fact, lie about the origins of the allegations. Here's a brief explanation of how the committee made the changes. It's also explained in this video.
No Intent to Deceive
There has never been any ambiguity about what Taleyarkhan believed, what he claimed, or his intent. The Feb. 20, 2008, closing comments presented to Purdue by Larry Selander, an attorney who represented Taleyarkhan at the time, made this clear.
"We believe it important," Selander wrote, "to put this evidence (including the evidence submitted after the hearing) into perspective for the Investigation Committee. We believe, now more than ever, that Dr. Taleyarkhan cannot be found guilty of "research misconduct" under any definition.
"Research misconduct requires intent. There is no direct evidence of intent. All the direct evidence is to the contrary. Any circumstantial evidence which one could argue is present is simply not sufficient to show anything Dr. Taleyarkhan did is more likely than not research misconduct (which is the ‘burden of proof’ for this Committee)."
Purdue Charges Taleyarkhan
On April 18, 2008, the Purdue investigation committee completed its final report and said that it had confirmed the two allegations of research misconduct against Taleyarkhan.
On May 2, 2008, Adams convened the ONR Science and Technology Integrity Board to review Purdue's investigation report. The board consisted of Wood, Adams, Chuck Paoletti, executive director of the Acquisition Department, Patricia Gruber, director of Research, Joseph Lawrence, director of Transition, Julie Christodoulou, division head, and Michael Shlesinger, chief scientist for nonlinear science.
Adams wrote that the purpose was to review the case concerning Taleyarkhan and the DARPA/ONR sonofusion award to UCLA.
"The single purpose of the first phase of this project was to attempt to duplicate the [ORNL experiment]," Adams wrote. But the two allegations by Purdue had nothing to do with the ONR award.
Warnings From Counsel
On July 15, 2008, ONR legal counsel Bryan Wood, however, knew that the failed UCLA replication likely had nothing to do with the allegations against Taleyarkhan, and he told Adams and the other members of the STIB.
"The research/experiment/publishing at issue in the [scientific misconduct] findings arises from Xu's work," Wood wrote, "and was not a part of ONR's intended grant or intended findings from that [DARPA/UCLA] grant/subgrant — even though funds may have been used to fund Xu's work. In that case, ONR has no jurisdiction to render a decision of any sort on the allegations/findings of misconduct in this case."
Adams and the other members of the STIB failed to heed Wood's counsel and proceeded under the assumption that the case was under its jurisdiction.
On July 17, 2008, Adams notified Purdue that ONR had approved the final report of the Purdue investigation, which ONR had mandated. The following day, Purdue issued a press release announcing that "two allegations against Rusi Taleyarkhan, a professor of nuclear engineering, constituted research misconduct."
On Aug. 27, 2008, Purdue sanctioned Taleyarkhan by removing his endowed chair and limiting his involvement with graduate researchers. The university issued another press release that again said Taleyarkhan was guilty of research misconduct — knowing full well the impact on his career.
Purdue's policy on research integrity says, "The mere suspicion or allegation of wrongdoing, even if totally unjustified, is potentially damaging to a person's career. Consequently, no information about charges of a lack of integrity in research may be disclosed except to the appropriate university and federal authorities."
On Sept. 1, 2008, five days after Purdue issued its sanctions against Taleyarkhan, Tsoukalas wrote to Adams, telling her that the faculty of the Purdue School of Nuclear Engineering thought the sanctions were too light. He asked her to visit Purdue and to arrange retaliation against Taleyarkhan.
"The faculty of our school is utterly disgusted with Purdue's duplicity," Tsoukalas wrote. "We feel damaged and violated. We want to protect our names and our school's future and show that scientific truth can't be made with gutter politics. The faculty (all except RT and Revankar, obviously) would like to meet with you and the House Science Committee. I know that retaliations are not within the IG's area, and hence do not know if this is appropriate, or even possible, but maybe something to discuss, no?"
"Let me have a day to catch up, and let's talk," Adams wrote back. "There may be some strategies available that we haven't explored."
Adams Helps Out
Following Tsoukalas' requests, Adams visited Purdue and interviewed select members of the School of Nuclear Engineering faculty. A few months later, with the assistance of the ONR Science and Technology Integrity Board, with the approval of ONR Executive Director Walter Jones, and their colleagues at the Navy Acquisition and Integrity Office, the Navy imposed additional punishments on Taleyarkhan.
According to a subsequent report by the Naval Inspector General's office, the STIB maintained no record of its meetings and operated in near-complete secrecy.
"Currently, there is no agenda, attendance or minutes recorded for STIB meetings," the Naval Inspector General's office wrote. "The only records identified regarding the STIB meetings were revealed through a search of Ms. Adams' personal NMCI e-mail account. Due to the lack of records, and the recollection of the STIB members, it was impossible to identify the specific dates of all STIB meetings and those in attendance."
In late 2008, several weeks before ONR sent its punitive determination to Taleyarkhan, journalist Steven B. Krivit, publisher and senior editor of New Energy Times, published the details of how Purdue created its two allegations. Krivit sent a copy of the report to Adams. He also sent Adams a forensic analysis he performed on the Purdue allegations. But Adams and her colleagues had already decided that Purdue had conducted a fair and thorough investigation and had followed its procedures.
The Navy had decided to prohibit Taleyarkhan from receiving federal funding for 28 months and to send him a letter identifying him as an unethical and irresponsible citizen. This notice, according to procedure, was distributed throughout the federal government.
On Feb. 5, 2009, the day after the Navy sent the letter to Taleyarkhan, Adams left a voicemail for Krivit, to tip him off to the forthcoming news.
"Hi, this is Holly," Adam said. "I'm calling from my cell phone for probably obvious reasons. There are new developments. I am still under a gag. I can give you a little information. You'll need to get the specifics, though, from somebody else, and I can tell you who, how and when and what will be available to you. You can call me on my work phone or my cell. I'll have my cell with me in my office, and my work phone is 703.696.0989; my cell phone is [xxx]."
Krivit called Adams right away and asked for more details.
"I wanted to tell you there was a package that was mailed yesterday to Taleyarkhan," Adams said. "So my guess is he'll get it early next weekend; he's the one that you'll need to talk to. He'll probably contact you. That's where you'll get your next information because everybody else is gagged. I'm telling you this terribly clandestinely, but my guess is that you'll be one of the first on the list to learn about it, but I might as well give you a heads-up so you can beat anybody else to the punch."
Adams told Krivit that the Navy was not going to issue any press release but that, if he wanted, Krivit could file a FOIA request to get more information.
"You may want to position yourself to have your FOIA request in now and pending," Adam said. 'You'll be one of the first that will be answered when that date comes."
Krivit asked, "Is this going to be worth my time? I'm almost at my burnout point on the story."
"It's worth it," Adams said. "This is part of the history. If I was to write a history book, this would probably be the epilogue."
When Krivit learned of the bad news the day Taleyarkhan received the letter — on Friday, Feb. 13, 2009 — Krivit called up Adams. Krivit calmly told Adams that he was surprised about the Navy's decision. Krivit asked Adams whether she had read his investigations of how Purdue fabricated the allegations. Adams said she hadn't. They spoke for the better part of an hour. Krivit learned that Adams did not, in fact, do her own investigation but merely made a perfunctory review of the Purdue investigation.
"We did not investigate," Adams said. "Our job is to answer the hotline and see what the allegations are. In this case, there was an institution that had oversight of what was going on so we directed the institution to conduct an investigation."
Krivit learned much more about what Adams understood and, more important, what she didn't know about the case. As Krivit began to explain the story to her, Adams realized that Putterman had a potential conflict of interest.
"Doesn't he have a patent on the process?" Adams said.
"Yes, you're right, he has a patent," Krivit said. "I think it was granted in 1997 on a similar process."
"Could one say," Adams said, "he was eager to jump up and cast aspersions on this, because he had a dog in the race himself?"
Connecting the Dots
Adams was beginning to figure it out. Krivit continued explaining what had happened.
"I don't know how to say this, Holly," Krivit said, "but I think there're some things that you're unaware of and that you don't understand. The UCLA experiment — Purdue has no clue what happened with that. Maybe the ONR people have no clue, also. But you guys disbarred the wrong guy.”
Adams went silent. Krivit interrupted the long silence.
"I can come to D.C., and I'll show you, and I'll explain it to you. I can show you the science."
"And you know," Adams said, "I'm afraid you could be right."
"I'll come to D.C. I'll lay it all out for you," Krivit said. "I've already investigated it, published it, it's on the Internet."
Adams began to consider the possible reality of the experiment.
"Have you seen it? Have you seen a replication?" Adams asked.
A light bulb had gone off in her head. She was beginning to realize the magnitude of the situation. Krivit explained more to her about the details of his investigation and the personal consequences of what Taleyarkhan had been through, in part from her own actions.
"If this continues," Krivit said, “you have to consider the possibility of, What if he's innocent, and what if Purdue and you and the government have wrongly persecuted him? I've been told by Alvin Solomon, a former professor at Purdue, that he thinks Taleyarkhan is most likely either going to end up being a taxi driver or he's going to commit suicide."
"I'm scared," Adams said.
"You should be, Holly," Krivit said. "I have an e-mail from Taleyarkhan right now that worries me."
"I have a heart," Adams said. "That scares me, too. That's one of the questions I posed to the ONR Inquiry Board. I said to them, 'What I don't understand is, How can somebody perpetuate this?' They have to truly believe in their heart it has been a success. And then to perpetuate this for years, they must truly believe in their hearts what they say they have achieved. I just don't understand someone risking their reputation, 30-something years. Why would somebody risk wiping that out?"
Krivit realized that Adams was willing to consider that she and ONR had made a mistake. Adams appeared to be sincerely interested in setting things right. Krivit asked again to confirm that she would agree to meet with him.
"If you make a trip to D.C. for that," Adams said, "I will absolutely make time. It could be hours; it could be days. I'll make the time. And we don't have to meet at the office; we can meet somewhere else. Let's time the meeting so we can go over the evidence you have, the concepts you have, the conclusions you've come to. I think this is a good week."
Inspector Meets Journalist
Four days later, Krivit was in Adams' office. During the meeting, which they both recorded, Krivit outlined the scientific facts behind the various experiments that were involved in the full story. Adams clearly understood, as she reiterated to Krivit.
"Correct me if I'm wrong," Adams said. "There was misinformation passed, allegedly, from UCLA concerning their test of Dr. Taleyarkhan's procedure, or they misrepresented the experiment by not following his procedure to a 'T.' Thereby, they were unable to replicate his experiment. As a result, the public perception, Purdue’s perception, perhaps the ONR perception is that then Taleyarkhan's experiment didn't work as a result of a not-precise replication conducted by UCLA."
She got it. She further understood that the basis for the Navy's perception of UCLA’s failed replication, which led to the Navy's punitive action and letter to Taleyarkhan, was possibly without foundation. Adams began to understand that the UCLA experiment, "that we hang our hat on," was not a valid basis on which to judge Taleyarkhan's science or his actions.
Adams reiterated her understanding of the root of the political conflict at Purdue and how and why Taleyarkhan fell victim to a domino effect. She also began to see the significance of the data changed by Clikeman — with Tsoukalas' full knowledge — from positive to null. (Before the dominos fell, Tsoukalas had told the BBC that his group found "statistically significant tritium increases" from its sonofusion experiments.)
"That is getting back to, I think, where this started," Adams said. "Do you understand?"
Adams summarized it concisely.
"Yes," Krivit said, "it's integral to what happened at Purdue."
"Exactly. The other things fell like dominos," Adams said. "I believe that what you have just said makes the definition under the federal guidance of scientific research misconduct, and if federal funding was involved at the time, that allegation can be made to the federal funding agency, and it will be investigated."
Adams told Krivit that she would look into the matter. Two days later, Krivit tried to follow up with Adams. Her mobile phone number was out of service, and she did not respond to Krivit's follow-up e-mails or calls to her office phone. This was now far beyond a news story for Krivit. He believed he had an obligation to act as a citizen.
NCIS, USMC, DOD
The first person Krivit spoke to was Mark Wilkoff, an official with the Navy's Acquisition Integrity Office, which was handling ONR's debarment procedure. Wilkoff introduced Krivit to Ken Frederick, an investigator with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Frederick began an inquiry, and perceiving administrative but not criminal issues, passed the case to Warren Worth, senior official investigator in Assistance and Investigations for the Inspector General of the Marine Corps. Worth came out to California to interview Krivit, asking him about his communications with Adams. Krivit gave his recorded testimony, under oath.
As Krivit learned by the end of the interview, Worth was less interested in the Purdue/Taleyarkhan case than in Adams' actions. Worth suggested to Krivit that, if Krivit wanted a government investigation of Adam's handling of the Purdue/Taleyarkhan case, Krivit would have to file a complaint with the Department of Defense inspector general, which Krivit did.
The Department of Defense inspector general accepted Krivit's complaint. After doing so, the DOD IG directed the Navy inspector general to investigate Adam's actions in the Purdue/Taleyarkhan case. The investigation took several years. Once complete, it took an additional three years for Krivit to obtain, under FOIA, the final report from the Navy inspector general's office.
When the report discusses interactions between Adams and Krivit, the report shows multiple inconsistencies between Adams' statements under oath and Krivit's statements under oath. The report also shows other instances when Adams was unable to remember or explain to investigators her reasoning for some of her actions and statements.
The Naval inspector general's office still didn't investigate the Adams/ONR handling of the Purdue/Taleyarkhan investigation. However, NAVINSGEN substantiated two other allegations that emerged during the course of its investigation. First, it determined that Adams had improperly communicated with a member of the public (Krivit).
NAVINSGEN wrote, "An informational Report of Investigation to the Chief of Naval Research that indicated Ms. Adams' 'lack of adherence to, or disregard for, ONR policy concerning communication with journalists, and in this instance, a journalist who has numerous foreign national contacts, calls into question Ms. Adams' [redacted] operations security responsibility.' On 1 April, 2009, ONR placed Ms. Adams on administrative leave and subsequently administratively reassigned her to the [ONR Freedom of Information Act office]."
Second, the Naval office determined that Adams, "while conducting oversight of the scientific misconduct investigation of Dr. Rusi Taleyarkhan, failed to remain objective and impartial." The investigators found that Adams had exchanged 43 e-mails with Tsoukalas, the person who had filed the federal complaint against Taleyarkhan. Adams told the investigators that Tsoukalas had worked very closely with her. In one of the e-mails Tsoukalas sent to Adams, he asked Adams for money.
"I wonder if we could have any litigation support from the Office of Naval Research," Tsoukalas said. "With the significant out-of-pocket legal expenses of last summer's [misconduct] allegations against us in which we were forced to retain counsel, our resources are severely depleted. We are broke, in plain English."
Tsoukalas was referring to the fact that another scientist of Indian descent at Purdue, Shripad Revankar, had filed a research integrity complaint with the university because Tsoukalas' group had changed the positive data to null data. Purdue has never publicly mentioned anything about that research integrity matter. Adams wrote back to Tsoukalas encouragingly.
"Hmmmm. Let me think if there are any angles we can use," Adams wrote. "There may be, depending on the results from the final [Office of Naval Research] report."
A Close Collaboration
The relationship between Adams and Tsoukalas moved into personal matters. Adams told Tsoukalas that she was intending to go back to school for a graduate degree, and she asked him to write a letter of recommendation for her. Here's what he wrote.
"I have known Ms. Adams," Tsoukalas wrote, "over the past several years in her capacity as Inspector General of the Office of Naval Research and have collaborated with her in discerning a very difficult case of research integrity. She did an outstanding investigation upholding the highest standards of objectivity and professionalism. The reasoning and analytical skills that she brought to bear on the investigation would be envied by any great research scientist."
No Happy Ending
On March 16, 2013, Eric Weddle, writing for the Lafayette Journal & Courier, revealed evidence of systemic violations of due process for Purdue professors who faced investigations or sanctions for alleged wrongdoings.
Weddle found that Purdue University professors face “crippling legal costs, banishment from campus and a muddled path to appeal. … The cause, they say, is university policies that have limited faculty input and, in some cases, effectively made administrators judge and jury.”
Sadly, there are no winners in this story. Far more people — including graduate students — have suffered from the incidents at the Purdue School of Nuclear Engineering. Some people who have had the courage to come forward in support of Taleyarkhan have suffered physically and financially. Some have endured retaliation.
Purdue administrators have called police to the school at least once in response to the actions of two professors there, Mamoru Ishii and Takashi Hibiki. People privately express their regrets to Taleyarkhan, yet nobody in the university has publicly acknowledged its institutional failure. Moreover, science, and science in the public interest, has lost.
Even though the government determined that Adams had failed to remain objective and impartial, it made no apparent effort to reverse the effects of the investigation she directed about Taleyarkhan. The loss of his endowed chair comes with the loss of significant discretionary funds and the loss of salary supplement. The loss of his privilege to serve on the graduate committee means that he cannot participate in decisions that affect the careers of doctoral candidates who are studying under him.
"But the real damage of the sanctions," Taleyarkhan wrote, "lives on in the minds of friends, foes and sponsors, particularly now, while I am in the most productive years of my professional life. I am living on borrowed time now and cherishing every minute with my family, friends and students."
Taleyarkhan remains a professor in the Purdue School of Nuclear Engineering but now pursues other research interests. The Taleyarkhan group's experiment remains difficult to independently replicate for two main reasons. First, it is simply a difficult experiment, as even Taleyarkhan concedes.
"Bottom line is," Taleyarkhan wrote, "the experiment is indeed very difficult to do successfully, but doable. Not for the faint-hearted."
Second, the skills and knowledge developed by the Oak Ridge glassblowers and the Oak Ridge research group have not been successful transferred. Other research and industrial groups around the world are actively pursuing related experiments with marginal success. Taleyarkhan has endured more than this account covers, and the toll on him and his family has been heavy.
"I, for one, would not put my family through this again even if funds came begging,” Taleyarkhan wrote.