July 30, 2010
Issue #35


Previous ArticleTable of ContentsNext Article
New Energy Times home page

17. Review of Grant Pownall Master's Thesis on "Cold Fusion"

By Steven B. Krivit

Last year, I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of a master's thesis by Grant Pownall. The thesis is "Demarcating Science: The Case of Cold Fusion."

Pownall completed his thesis for a master’s of science degree in science communication at Dublin City University, Ireland, in 2010. He earned a bachelor’s of science degree in mathematics as well as a bachelor’s of arts degree in philosophy from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand in 1994.

Pownall's thesis is that, because "cold fusion" was rejected from mainstream science by political and social means in 1989, rather than by scientific and technical criteria, only political and social approaches can bring it back to mainstream science.

I mostly agree with Pownall's thesis. The scientific evidence for nuclear reactions – helium and tritium – was there for those people willing to see it in 1989. Observers who were objective and behaved scientifically could have noticed these phenomena– and some did – and concluded that there was something real. However, the "cold fusion" announcement was laden with drama and volatility, and this made an important distinction – nuclear but not necessarily fusion – a difficult one for most observers.

Pownall's thesis that a political and social effort is required to bring "cold fusion" back to the mainstream is largely correct and certainly profound and insightful. I, for one, have been part of this effort since 2000 as a specialized journalist, though I did not clearly recognize where my media and communication projects fit into the larger picture until I read Pownall. I was too close to it. All I knew at the time was that there was a communication gap and I wanted to fix it so we could get on with the science and technology and utilize better energy solutions.

The acceptance of the Widom-Larsen theory in Washington, D.C., beginning in 2006, has spurred receptivity of the entire field perhaps more than any other development.

Implicit in Pownall's thesis is that better science – for example, better calorimetry – will never by itself cause the shift necessary to recognize new, legitimate but controversial science. "Just the facts, ma'am" are not enough. I concur.

Pownall is a superb researcher: precise, insightful and astute. I appreciated his thorough and up-to-date depiction of cold fusion history and LENR. 

Because Pownall availed himself of a broad range of resources, including videotapes of the original Utah press conference, he has been able to report more accurately in some circumstances than, for example, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times did in 1989. Of course, observers like Pownall and me have an easier time because we are not in the middle of a media frenzy, as so many reporters were during the first few weeks of the dramatic "cold fusion" history.

I will excerpt a few points that I find particularly notable from Pownall's thesis.

“According to the principle of the conservation of energy,” he writes, “the amount of heat leaving the cell as measured by the calorimeter should equal the amount of energy applied to the cell by the electric current. This is exactly what Pons and Fleischmann found whilst the cell was ‘charging’ for days or months.” 

Pownall makes a very astute point that has been underappreciated in most reviews of this history. Fleischmann and Pons' cells ran for weeks on end while the deuterium was loading into the palladium, all the while being in energy balance. 

“Then, suddenly,” Pownall says, “usually because something upset the equilibrium of the cell, the power measured by the calorimeter shot up. The power coming from the cell was 10, 20, up to 50% higher than the power applied by the electric current.”

Fleischmann and Pons knew their system and its normal behavior like masters of any discipline. Normal and abnormal states were as obvious to them as day and night are to the rest of us. When they applied triggers, under the right conditions, they saw excess heat; direct cause and effect. Pownall conveys the significance of these two states, equilibrium and disquilibrium, very well.

He intentionally does not make great efforts to show the scientific support for – or against – "cold fusion":

This dissertation is not a scientific one. I will not be examining the scientific merit of the proponents’ and the critics’ evidence. Rather, I will show that the main arguments used by the critics against the reality of cold fusion are not scientific arguments at all. The method by which critics presented their arguments and the reasons behind the arguments are political, social and economic, not scientific. And these arguments are used to demarcate cold fusion as a pseudo-science rather than to prove it wrong.  

Again Pownall provides an astute insight; "cold fusion," in the general sense, was not proven wrong by the 1989 critics, yet they succeeded in characterizing it – in its entirety – as unscientific.

Pownall also helps us see the immense power wielded by the physics establishment that was so dogmatically averse to Fleischmann and Pons' disrupting paradigm.

Pownall explains:

If the death of cold fusion is a murder, what is the motive? In the next chapter, we consider the Manhattan Project to build the world’s first atomic bomb. The project propelled the world into the nuclear age. It propelled physicists in the U.S. into powerful and influential positions, politically, socially and economically. To own nuclear science and its greatest achievement – nuclear fusion – was to own the greatest threat and the greatest hope of humanity. Physicists would not give these up easily.

And they did not; nor are they likely ever to give up their turf easily. Physicists were and remain prone to a higher level of public recognition than not only chemists but also those in all other disciplines of science. Pownall cites a 1960s study cited by Daniel J. Kevles[1] that found that, in the mid-1960s, physicists ranked behind only physicians and Supreme Court justices in occupational status.

Pownall quotes Kevles (p. 392):

Whatever history might conclude, in the mid-1960s American physicists headed a community of scientists who ... had collectively become something very close to an establishment, in the old and proper sense of that word: a set of institutions supported by tax funds, but largely on faith, and without direct responsibility to political control.

"It’s in this context that a man such as Richard Garwin can gain such prominence," Pownall writes.

Pownall may not know about the JASONS, a secretive, private group that has been contracted by various U.S. government branches to quietly advise the government on interesting and often controversial science and technology subjects. Garwin was once the head of the group.

Pownall takes philosopher Karl Popper's thoughts about mistakes in science and goes further with an important concept that could be a thesis all on its own:

Mistakes are essential to science, and scientists, crucially, are not derided and ex-communicated from the scientific community for making them. If mistakes were cause for expulsion from the community, there would be precious few scientists left to make up the community.

Taking Pownall's thought one step further, I believe that Fleischmann and Pons were not, in fact, ex-communicated from the scientific community just for making what a few critics confirmed and many others imagined as significant mistakes. The cold fusion controversy was about human issues: power, prestige, money and control.

Had nuclear fusion not been the domain of physicists, and at big-name schools, there would have been no apple cart for the chemists in Utah to upset. Had Utah not requested – circumventing normal grant procedures no less – some of the federal funding that would have gone to thermonuclear fusion researchers and their institutions, there would have been no brawl. Had thermonuclear fusion researchers made better progress by then, they would have been less fearful of "cold fusion," which brought (momentarily) new hope to Congress.

My only criticism of Pownall's work is that he did not attribute all the quotes he used. In quite a few cases, I recognized short unattributed but familiar strings of text – five to 10 words, for example. After I alerted Pownall to them, he properly attributed all such text; however, I cannot be sure that all text has been fully and properly attributed.
Pownall ends with a crucial concern that reveals an endemic problem in much of today's science journalism:

Cold fusion’s rejection will be historically regarded as one of science’s big mistakes. But there are lessons to be learned outside of science. The public and politicians can and should be more involved in decision making in the allocation of resources to science. To support this participation, science journalists must stop deferring to scientists and adopt the critical attitude that journalists use successfully in reporting politics, business, crime and society. It also raises an interesting corollary: how many other sciences are languishing unfunded or are being discredited by politically motivated scientific communities? Let us hope that there are few and that the treatment of cold fusion is the exception rather than the rule.



1. Kevles, D.J. 1995 (1978). The physicists: The history of a scientific community in modern America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


Previous ArticleTable of ContentsNext Article