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A Birthday Party For Cold Fusion
By George Johnson
The New York Times

April 1, 1990

COLD fusion, or whatever it is, is now one year old, and still no one can say for certain whether or not it is real. Last week, a conference in Salt Lake City marked the anniversary of the announcement that Drs. B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann had generated cheap, potentially limitless energy in a laboratory beaker. But the journal Nature published a report by Dr. Michael H. Salamon, who says that he found ''not an iota, not a sniff, of conventional fusion,'' even though he tried to repeat the experiment using Dr. Pons's own apparatus.

In the classic view of science taught in high school, scientists test hypotheses by designing experiments. If the experiment succeeds the hypothesis is supported, if the experiment fails the hypothesis is overturned. But as the philosopher W. V. O. Quine has noted, interpreting a failed experiment is not such a trivial matter. The fault may not lie with the hypothesis at all, but anywhere within the vast network of knowledge, beliefs and assumptions used to design the experiment.

Ever since last March, when Dr. Pons and Dr. Fleischmann announced that they had harnessed the energy of the sun, scientists around the world have tried to repeat the experiment. But the supporters of cold fusion have been able to explain away every failed replication: the palladium electrode central to the experiment must be crafted just so, they say, and the measurements of energy output must be done just right.

Last week, Dr. Fritz G. Will, head of the National Cold Fusion Institute, dismissed the negative report in Nature, noting that variations in laboratory conditions, including humidity, must be taken into account. ''Experimental conditions prevailing in those experiments were not suitable to finding the phenomenon,'' he said.

There is no end to the ad hoc explanations that can be pulled from the air to shore up a besieged hypothesis. Should the second anniversary of cold fusion come around with the debate, however muffled, still continuing, it will be the ideas of Dr. Quine, more than those of Drs. Pons and Fleischmann, that will be upheld.

 

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