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Cold-Fusion Claim Is Faulted on Ethics as Well as Science
By William J. Broad
The New York Times
March 17, 1991
The startling assertion by two chemists that they had achieved nuclear fusion in a test tube was based on "invented" data whose publication involved a serious breach of ethics and a violation of scientific protocol, prominent scientists have concluded.
The two researchers dismiss the charge, saying that their work on low-temperature, or cold, fusion was ethically sound and beyond reproach.
The cold-fusion debate erupted two years ago when the chemists, Dr. B. Stanley Pons and Dr. Martin Fleischmann, announced at the University of Utah that they had captured the secret of the sun's energy in a test tube at room temperature. The claim set off a race by thousands of scientists around the world to duplicate the experiment in the hope that they could develop a new source of safe cheap and virtually limitless energy. But the lack of independent proof eventually caused most of the cold-fusion efforts to collapse.
Original Data Are Assailed
Now, a new book by a respected scientist says the crucial evidence in the original claim was so skewed as to be "invented." The book, "Too Hot to Handle," to be published in May by Princeton University Press, is by Dr. Frank Close, a physicist with top posts at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Rutherford Laboratory in Britain. Both are government laboratories that do wide-ranging research, including work on the atom.
In a telephone interview last week, Dr. Close said that publication of the Utah data with no hint of its dubious origin was a "serious error of judgment" that violated the scientific code of ethics. Other scientists with intimate knowledge of the affair have come to similar conclusions.
"I was convinced for a while it was absolute fraud," said Dr. Richard D. Petrasso, a fusion scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Now I've softened. They probably believed in what they were doing. But how they represented it was a clear violation of how science should be done."
Shift Called 'Inexcusable'
Dr. Michael H. Salamon, a physicist at the University of Utah who had close contact with the researchers, said that the data measured in the laboratory were different from those published in the original scientific paper, which was a pivotal piece of evidence for the claim of cold fusion. "Scientifically, it's inexcusable not to have explained how the shift occurred" in the data, Dr. Salamon said.
But Dr. Fleischmann said he strongly disagreed. In a telephone interview from his home in Britain, he denied any impropriety and said the data presented were perfectly legitimate for a first paper.
"We didn't do anything wrong," he said. "It was a preliminary note that didn't contain details." But Dr. Fleischmann conceded that he now considers the disputed data "rubbish," although he still believes in cold fusion.
The whereabout of Dr. Pons are not publicly known and attempts to obtain a response through his lawyer were unsuccessful. His lawyer said the book's assertions were unfounded.
Tremendous Hope Is Raised
Nuclear fusion is the force that powers the sun, the stars and hydrogen bombs, fusing atoms rather than breaking them apart as nuclear reactors do in creating energy. The fusion process usually requires heat of many millions of degrees to get under way.
The possibility that this might change was raised on March 23, 1989, when Dr. Pons, chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Utah, and Dr. Fleischmann of Southampton University in England, a visiting researcher at Utah, announced in Salt Lake City that they had achieved fusion at room temperature in a tabletop device.
But behind-the-scenes activity regarding the experiment is coming to light that shows crucial evidence in the original publication had been altered.
All types of nuclear fusion produce a variety of byproducts, including heat, neutrons and gamma rays. Heat is ambiguous as proof of a nuclear reaction, since chemical devices like batteries also produce heat. A critical "signature" of fusion is considered to be neutrons of a particular energy, as well as the gamma rays produced when the speeding neutrons strike surrounding material.
Data Changes Along the Way
The Utah researchers published a scientific paper showing a gamma-ray reading at an energy level that was exactly right if the process was indeed fusion, and the finding was interpreted by many scientists as strong backing for their assertion. This evidence was indeed vital, since there was no reading of neutron energy. But in fact, the actual gamma-ray reading was significantly different from what appeared in print.
The man who made the original gamma-ray measurement was Robert J. Hoffman, a radiation safety officer at the university, who in March 1989 was called into the cold-fusion laboratory. According to the new book, he found gamma rays with an energy of about 2.5 million electron-volts, or MeV, which traced out a clear peak on the screen of his detector.
In an interview, Mr. Hoffman said the cold-fusion researchers used the data "any way they liked" without consulting him. Then, months later, he said, he found the measuring instrument to be faulty.
"With the peak in question, I do not know to this day in all good conscience whether it was or wasn't an artifact," he said, referring to the possibility of experimental error.
On March 24, 1989, the day after the Utah news conference at which the discovery was announced, Dr. Pons and Dr. Fleischmann sent a paper to the British journal Nature that included the 2.5 MeV figure, according to the new book. That paper was later withdrawn, its data never made public.
On March 28, Dr. Fleischmann, presented the 2.5 MeV figure to a science group at Harwell, a top nuclear laboratory in Britain, according to the new book. "He was told that 2.5 MeV is the wrong place for a gamma ray coming from neutron capture," the book says. By his next public talk, in Geneva on March 31, 1989, Dr. Fleischmann said the crucial piece of data was at 2.2 MeV, the magic number that indicated to all experts the occurrence of a fusion reaction.
'It Was the Wrong Energy'
A data adjustment was also under way in Salt Lake City. On March 29, Dr. Salamon of the university's physics department and two other physicists met with Dr. Pons. They went over a scientific paper in manuscript form that displayed the gamma peak at 2.5 MeV, as it had been measured.
"We said it was the wrong energy," Dr. Salamon recalled in an interview. "Pons said, 'Yes, yes, we know it's 2.2 MeV.' But he glossed over the question of how he knew that. He didn't say it was a recalibration. He said we know it's 2.2."
The paper that Dr. Pons and Dr. Fleischmann eventually published, which appeared in 1989 in The Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry, showed a peak for the telltale gamma rays at 2.2 MeV, strongly suggesting that a new form of nuclear fusion had been discovered in Salt Lake City.
A Calculational Change
In the interview, Dr. Fleischmann defended his actions and those of his colleague, saying the measured data had simply undergone a calculational change. He could not remember, he said, who had done the calculation or when. "You always calculate," he said. "When you measure, you have to convert it into an energy, you have to calibrate and calculate. In the preliminary note, you cannot explain all that."
But other scientists say there was an ethical obligation to show greater candor to the readers of the original paper, especially given the magnitude of the cold-fusion claims.
In his book, Dr. Close says that if the pair had been more forthcoming, "the excitement over test-tube fusion would probably have died within a few days."
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