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Cold Fusion Still Escapes Usual Checks Of Science
By William J. Broad
The New York Times
October 30, 1990
LAST week the State of Utah found itself in an unenviable position. One of its star researchers, Dr. B. Stanley Pons, failed to appear before a review committee examining his cold fusion research, in which the state has invested $5 million.
Why have the conventional checking mechanisms of science apparently failed to resolve the issue decisively enough to put Utah out of its uncertainty? Experts say the saga of cold fusion is highly revealing of how science handles sweeping claims, and how that process can be subverted by dedicated mavericks who defy the canons of science.
It was in March 1989 that Dr. Pons and his British colleague, Dr. Martin Fleischmann, announced that they had created energy by fusing atoms at room temperature in a table-top experiment. Palladium rods in a jar of heavy water, they said, could produce great quantities of excess heat. The electrifying claim, and its promise of limitless cheap energy, immediately attracted the attention of the world's physicists.
The conventional checking mechanism of science immediately swung into action as researchers around the world raced to duplicate the Utah experiment. There were a few tantalizing claims of confirmation but in each case researchers found they had committed subtle experimental errors or misinterpretations, and eventually withdrew their claims. The vast majority of scientists found no evidence of cold fusion. Federal panels reviewed the work and labeled it unconvincing. The physics community reluctantly abandoned the hope of perfecting a new, cheap, safe and virtually inexhaustible source of energy. The consensus verdict of science was plain: cold fusion does not exist.
Among mainstream scientists, "it was defeated because so many people tried and failed to duplicate the process," said Dr. Melvin Kranzberg, a historian at the Georgia Institute of Technology, adding, "Otherwise the delusion might have persisted for a long time."
That verdict was delivered at considerable expense but with reasonable rapidity. Yet it failed to stop Dr. Pons and Dr. Fleischman. They forged ahead regardless, making bold new claims and attracting new interest even as they dodged many aspects of formal scientific review in an elusive game of cat and mouse. Despite the lack of support from many other scientists, their claims convinced the Utah State Legislature to invest $5 million in setting up an institute for their work. The General Electric Company entered into an information-sharing agreement with them, which still exists but is not active.
The first apparent break in their momentum came last week when they missed a critical meeting of the state's Fusion Energy Advisory Council. Dr. Fleischmann is ill in England. Salt Lake City newspapers reported that Dr. Pons's home was up for sale and his phone was disconnected. Angry state officials extracted a promise from the absent pair via their lawyer, that at least one of them would appear in early November for an extraordinary review of their work by a panel of four outside experts.
How did matters get so far when the scientific process had already delivered its verdict? Dr. Richard L. Garwin, an eminent physicist and skeptic of cold fusion, said the work had been "kept afloat" through pure "zealotry."
But Dr. William Happer Jr., a Princeton University physicist who had reviewed the work and also found it wanting, said the situation was not so extraordinary. "Sometimes it takes three or four years to sort these things out," Dr. Happer said. "Cold fusion will be here next year. It just won't die that easily, judging from history."
Keeping Their Secrets
In the case of cold fusion, the originators have been able to persist with their claim by refusing to acknowledge the consensus verdict of their fellow scientists, and also by declining to cooperate in several instances with the conventional procedures of scientific review.
"When serious doubts were raised, they were not forthcoming with their data," noted Dr. John Maddox, the editor of Nature, the respected British science journal. "That was a black mark."
In an interview, Dr. Fleischmann insisted that neither he nor Dr. Pons had defied the checking mechanisms of science, saying they had endeavored to be open whenever possible while still keeping some information secret for patent filings. "We are doing work on a subject that is somewhat sensitive," he said, "so naturally the intimate details cannot be released." Dr. Pons could not be reached for comment.
Even so, experts say these actions by the pair have shown a pattern of non-cooperation with the scientific process throughout the saga:
The Paper: The initial announcement of cold fusion, on March 23, 1989, was greeted with skepticism by many researchers since it was made at a news conference, with no scientific paper available to back the claims or to allow other researchers to assess the data and methods. The next day, they sent off a paper to the British journal Nature. But when the journal's reviewers raised questions, the authors said they were too busy to respond and withdrew the paper. To some scientists that was a red flag indicating a serious departure from the norms of scientific behavior.
Dr. Madddox, Nature's editor, said he was already deeply suspicious at the time since some of the key data the pair had presented in public meetings turned out to be faulty. "The work has been under a cloud from the very start," he said.
Dr. Fleischmann said a paper with highly accurate data was published in the July issue of The Journal of Electroanalytic Chemistry. But the journal is a specialty publication not widely circulated, and the paper came some 16 months after the cold-fusion annoucement, far too late for thousands of scientists who by that time had already dismissed the work as misguided.
The Testimony: In April 1989, while other researchers struggled in vain to duplicate their findings, the two scientists presented upbeat testimony to Congress. At the same session, Dr. Chase N. Peterson, president of the University of Utah, called for $25 million in Federal seed money toward a $100 million institute in Utah that would be devoted to the rapid commercialization of the discovery. "Without Federal participation, the race for competitive leadership will be handicapped," Dr. Peterson testified. Representative James H. Scheuer, Democrat of Queens, was skeptical, saying the work had produced "more confusion than cold fusion" and questioning whether it was driven by profit seeking rather than scientific peer review.
The Visit: A 20-member Federal panel from the Energy Department was formed to look into the work's merit, and its chairman requested a visit to the Utah laboratory. The team was initially rebuffed by Dr. Pons, who complained that it included scientists who were overtly hostile to his claims. In June 1989 the team was allowed in, but without its most outspoken members. Even so, the panel was unable to see all the data it wanted, said Dr. John R. Huizenga, a nuclear chemist at the University of Rochester who was co-chairman of the panel. In July the panel concluded that the prospects of producing energy with cold fusion were so remote that no new laboratories should be built by the Federal Government.
The Money: In August 1989, the State of Utah directed that $5 million be released so the University of Utah could found the National Cold Fusion Institute, a nonprofit corporation on the edge of campus. Of this sum, $500,000 went to patent lawyers. Having failed to win Federal support, the institute sought to attract corporate and other donors. It announced that a $500,000 gift had been received from an anonymous outsider, signaling interest beyond Utah. But the $500,000 was later found to have come from the school's own Research Foundation, the transfer having been authorized by Dr. Peterson. Amid a storm of protest over his actions, Dr. Peterson said he would retire at the end of the 1990-91 academic year, denying he was doing so under pressure.
The Threat: Dr. Michael H. Salamon, a Utah physicist, early on studied the cold-fusion apparatus of Dr. Pons. His results were published last March in Nature. Dr. Salamon and his nine co-authors reported they could find no sign of the telltale gamma rays that would indicate fusion, a finding widely interpreted as strong evidence against the claims. A lawyer representing Dr. Pons and Dr. Fleischmann demanded retraction of the paper under threat of a lawsuit. This stunned the university faculty as well as Dr. Salamon. "It's outrageous," he said at the time. "It is really an unparalleled assault on academic rights. You don't threaten scientific colleagues with lawsuits. That just doesn't happen." The lawyer later apologized.
Dr. Fleischmann vigorously denied that the pair had ever operated outside the social norms of science. "Absolutely not," Dr. Fleischmann said. Episodes like the one with the lawyer, he insisted, were simply reactions to the bias and excessive zeal displayed by cold-fusion critics.
Mavericks of the Past
Even so, at each stage in this 19-month process, the belief that cold fusion exists has grown steadily smaller. It has not vanished entirely; important Utah officials are still optimistic, as is Dr. Fritz G. Will, head of the National Cold Fusion Institute. The scientific review process does not always give definitive verdicts, and it is indeed healthy that dissenters and skeptics can live and survive in opposition to prevailing consensus.
Although many dissenters turn out to be wrong, a few are true revolutionaries whose ideas are too radical for acceptance by defenders of orthodox theory: a Pasteur, for example.
But such revolutionary discoveries are few and far between.
The state's Fusion Energy Advisory Council, angered that Dr. Pons and Dr. Fleischmann did not appear for the critical review meeting last week, have started an extraordinary process to have the pair's data examined in detail by a panel of four outside experts. If all goes according to plan, the review will be the most thorough examination of their work to date. State officials say it also could mark the end of state support for the project.
On the other hand, some scientists still believe that a review of the books could give the issue renewed life. "I'm trying to be open-minded," said Dr. Randy Moon, the state's science adviser and a member of the advisory council, which will recommend to the Legislature sometime in late November whether or not to renew financing.
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