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The Five Press Conferences of Cold Fusion
By Steven B. Krivit

Back to The University of Utah Fusion Press Conference Page

(Source: New Energy Times) On March 23, 1989, at the University of Utah, electrochemists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons announced to the world their discovery of "cold fusion" at a press conference organized by the university administration.

At this press conference, "cold fusion" and its discoverers, Fleischmann and Pons, were still innocent in the eyes of the world's scientists and science journalists. The topic had not yet evolved into the enormous controversy that it later became. At this first press conference, reporters asked questions that reflected cautious optimism; there was no sign of the hostility or outrage that would be so dominant in the coming weeks.

On May 1-2, 1989, a series of three press conferences took place in Baltimore, MD at the American Physical Society meeting, the world’s largest yearly gathering of physicists.

A fifth press conference took place on May 8, 1989 at a meeting of the Electrochemical Society of America in Los Angeles.

Details of the second, third and fourth press conferences have been chronicled in detail in Excess Heat & Why Cold Fusion Research Prevailed, 2nd Ed., by Charles Beaudette [1].

Jerrold K. Footlick has described the first and fifth press conferences in Truth and Consequences: How Colleges and Universities Meet Public Crises [2].

Footlick is a writer, university teacher and counselor in the fields of media and public affairs. He spent 20 years at Newsweek, where he created the magazine’s justice department and later, as senior editor, supervised the education, justice, science, medicine, sports and Periscope departments. He developed and edited Newsweek on Campus, a bimonthly magazine for college students.

Excerpts from Footlick’s chapter "Lightning in a Bottle" are enclosed in the text boxes below, with my commentary appearing between the excerpts.

Although Pons and Fleischmann had introduced the discussion [of cold fusion], the physicists' cutting counterattacks soon dominated public attention. Uncertain about the validity of this extraordinary claim, and given no warning, science reporters at major news organizations spun their rolodexes for guidance about nuclear fusion and came up with physicists to comment. Also surprised, and usually angry, most physicists immediately pronounced the science flawed and the method of announcing the finding at a press conference rather than in a peer-reviewed journal article unconscionable. (Source: New Energy Times)

The familial clash between chemists and physicists at the University of Utah grew particularly nasty. Utah's Department of Chemistry ranks among the nation's elite, and Pons was then serving as its chairman. Nevertheless, none of his departmental colleagues was working on cold fusion, and few knew enough about the experiments to explain or defend them. As it happened, no one in the university's physics department was even working on nuclear fusion, and its faculty was blind-sided by the announcement. Utah physicists who were called by reporters from Salt Lake City and elsewhere were embarrassingly ignorant about this momentous experiment conducted in a neighboring building.

Thus, Utah's chemists were sympathetic but neutral, and its physicists, especially after they heard from colleagues around the country, were condemning. "The anger between the physicists and chemists caught me totally off guard,'' said Pamela W. Fogle, director of university communications, who, as a former science writer, had worked often with scientists in both departments. "I never would have anticipated or expected it. ... I would never have dreamed that there would be this kind of discord and anger. And a lot of it seemed to me to be irrational anger, just people losing it completely. I mean, you could not open a conversation and get a rational discussion."

However valid their science, Pons and Fleischmann turned out to be public-relations disasters. Fleischmann, whose family fled Czechoslovakia for England in the 1930s, became one of his adopted country's leading electrochemists. He also mentored Pons, who earned his doctorate at the University of Southampton. Fleischmann worked mainly in England, traveling occasionally to Salt Lake City, where he collaborated only with Pons. His innocence about media relations caused one of the seemingly endless complications with the cold-fusion announcement.

Although he knew that a press conference had been scheduled for March 23 in Salt Lake City, Fleischmann spoke freely to a reporter for the Financial Times in London the week before. The reporter, who was heading off for an Easter weekend holiday, left his story with the paper, and it appeared on the wires the day before the Utah press conference. This enabled at least one major U.S. newspaper and one Salt Lake City television station to produce stories in advance, increasing the aura of science by hype. Fleischmann later said he had not understood the "embargo'' of an announcement and had not realized he was doing anything wrong; there is no reason to disbelieve him.

Fleischmann took only a small public role in the furor after the original announcement, leaving Pons, who was just as inexperienced in such matters, as the centerpiece of the American controversy; his increasing discomfort -- some have said paranoia -- about all the attention exacerbated the university's problems. A North Carolinian, Pons attended Wake Forest University before earning his doctorate in England. Although he had come to Utah only six years earlier, he was well regarded enough professionally and amenable enough personally to have been elected by his colleagues as chairman of the university's internationally respected chemistry department. University Communications Director Fogle says she had maintained a cordial relationship with him.

Pons's attitude and demeanor began to change as challenges grew heated. "When I first talked with Pons and Fleischmann,'' Fogle recalled, "they were candid and open with information, what I had come to expect as a science writer." But soon afterward, apparently upon the advice of lawyers, they stopped responding to questions or describing their work. "That was very frustrating to me as a communicator," Fogle said. A university scientist who knew him before he was famous said, "Stan was very gracious, very articulate, he had a warm sense of humor. He was concerned about students, he was an excellent teacher, students really enjoyed his classes. He was highly regarded in the chemistry department." Then within a month of the announcement came a startling change. "I think that the controversy hurt him deeply. He did not know how to deal with it, and it was at that point he started relying on his friend Triggs. He relied more and more on Gary as it got tougher and tougher.''

Gary Triggs was a childhood friend, who was a lawyer in North Carolina.

University authorities attribute much of their problem immediately after the announcement to the fact that Pons now listened almost exclusively to Triggs, who apparently had no special expertise in either science or patent law. At one agonizing point, Triggs threatened "legal action'' against Michael H. Salamon, a Utah physicist, who reported in the British journal Nature that he and his colleagues had rechecked the electrochemical cells on which the Pons-Fleischmann claims had been based and found no evidence of nuclear fusion.

Certainly, the threat of legal action was inappropriate for a matter of science.

Salamon's expectations, like those of most physicists at the time, were that fusion should show easily noticeable levels of gamma rays, neutrons and tritium. Even Fleischmann and Pons did not understand why the reaction failed to exhibit the conventional fusion characteristics. (Source: New Energy Times)

"The interesting phenomenon about this," Fleischmann said during the press conference, "is that the rate of generation of tritium and the rate of generation of helium-3 is only one-billionth of what you would expect if the fusion reactions were those experienced in high-energy physics."

However, they did understand that their experiment was releasing unexplainably large quantities of heat, and they were extremely confident about those data. Salamon, like many physicists early on, expected to see signatures of conventional nuclear reactions. Salamon disregarded the heat measurements, as such parameters were not considered part of "normal" nuclear research.

The observation of anomalous excess heat was not unlike the initial observation of radioactivity by Pierre and Marie Curie. They were confident in their observation, yet they lacked complete understanding of it.

Marie Curie writes: "More striking still was the discovery of the discharge of heat from radium. Without any alteration of appearance, this substance releases each hour a quantity of heat sufficient to melt its own weight of ice. This defied all contemporary scientific experience."

In hindsight, the Pons-Salamon confrontation appears to show the two men "talking past each other." Pons most likely was saying the heat measurements show evidence of a nuclear reaction and Salamon probably was saying it can't be a nuclear reaction if there are no neutrons.

Salamon was almost certainly without training in electrochemical heat measurements, and even if he was in possession of some related training, he most certainly was not in the same league as Fleischmann and Pons. It is easy to imagine that Fleischmann and Pons would have been outraged at Salamon’s shortsightedness and, at least in their view, hubris and ignorance when he announced that he had “rechecked” their cells.

Salamon demanded that the university pledge to defend him as a member of its tenured faculty and indemnify him if necessary. At the same time, the university believed it was committed to defending Pons, also a tenured professor. Thus, it faced the ludicrous prospect of supporting both sides in an academic freedom lawsuit and indemnifying the loser. Ultimately, the university ended its relationship with Triggs, he apologized in writing to Salamon, and the split did not proceed.

It is commonplace to blame lawyers in crises like these, just as it is to blame journalists, but here the excess caution of lawyers and the naiveté of Utah administrators in dealing with them particularly cluttered the issues. Patent lawyers from California and Texas were called into the planning process months before the public announcement -- that is, months before a report of the work was submitted to a journal and months before anyone except a handful of people knew about it. The lawyers focused not on the protocols of science or the intellectual reputation of the university but rather on enhancing the financial opportunities of the two scientists, the institution, and the state.

Utah's approach reflected the growing belief that a university deserves to benefit should its faculty's research prove lucrative. Peterson wanted to position Utah to gain financially from cold fusion, as Stanford University had from recombinant DNA, the University of Wisconsin from rat poison, and Indiana University from fluoridated toothpaste. He was particularly concerned with patents, since a few years earlier the federal government had given institutions the right to patent the results of federally sponsored research. To critics, Utah's thinking was dominated by greed rather than a sense of discovery.

At the same time, Utah further angered the scientific world [physicists, in particular] by reneging on an agreement with Steven E. Jones, a physicist at neighboring Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo. Having discovered that they were doing related work, Pons and Fleischmann agreed with Jones to make simultaneous announcements in separate papers for the journal Nature. According to Utah officials, Pons and Fleischmann soon developed second thoughts about the agreement. They decided that their work demonstrated energy production, while Jones' did not. But an additional factor made them, as one colleague said, "irate.'' Earlier they had sought a Department of Energy grant, and Jones, acting as a referee, is said to have asked repeatedly for additional information. Pons and Fleischmann came to believe that some of Jones' work was based on information derived from theirs, and therefore he did not deserve equal credit. So without so much as informing Jones or BYU, they arranged to publish in the Journal of Electrochemistry instead and proceeded to announce their findings at the press conference.

Peterson said that lawyers had advised him, Pons and Fleischmann, and James Brophy (the vice president for research) that the university risked losing international patents if news of the discovery became public before Utah had established its rights. In retrospect, other lawyers believe they were being hyper-cautious. But Utah officials found it hard to challenge their counsel, who said in effect: "We understand the stakes; we wouldn't be here if you hadn't thought to bring us in; we know more about how to handle this than you academics do."

Thinking first of the legalities and financial prospects, however, made an enormous difference in how the news was announced, and ultimately received. To protect their secret, for example, Peterson and Brophy did not alert Utah's own physicists, who might have injected caution into the process early and might not have been so aggressively opposed afterward. Worse, the fear of losing exclusivity pushed Pons and Fleischmann to rush their paper into the Journal of Electrochemistry before it had been thoroughly vetted by other scientists and before they had refined their own work; Pons pointedly said later that the announcement was premature. But facing science-by-press-release criticism, Utah authorities noted that the findings had in fact been submitted to the journal in advance of the public announcement (it appeared about a month later). They also dismissed as haughty the criticism of some physicists that the journal in question was "obscure.'' The Journal of Electrochemistry is small, yes, but this is because the field of electrochemistry is small.

Fleischmann and Pons were interested in intellectual primacy. The University was interested in patent priority. Fleischmann has gone on record with multiple historians asserting that the university was driving the early release, that he and Pons had wanted and needed another 18 months before they felt prepared to present the results. Gary Taubes has chronicled an eye-witness observing "Fleischmann 'almost in tears' as the consensus finally emerged that they would call a press conference" [3].

In August 2006, New Energy Times spoke with Chase Peterson, the president of the University of Utah in 1989. (Source: New Energy Times)

"The decision to announce was Martin and Stan's," Peterson said. "Then the University stepped in to help. It is quite possible that Martin did get cold feet but no one in the University ever heard from him that the announcement should be cancelled."

At the 17-year mark in this history, it is difficult to know exactly what happened. The best that this writer has been able to deduce is the following.

Initially, in January and February of 1989, Fleischmann and Pons were adamant about needing another 18 months before they were ready to go public.

When the attempted collaboration with Jones broke down, all parties at the University of Utah agreed to go public, contingent on the acceptance of Fleischmann and Pons' scientific paper.

A week prior to the press conference, Fleischmann sensed the impending fiasco and developed second thoughts. He told nobody in Utah; perhaps he felt too intimidated and outnumbered to go against Peterson, Brophy, the attorneys and perhaps even Pons, who had placed his trust in his attorney, Gary Triggs. Fleischmann may have therefore attempted to use his political contacts in the United Kingdom to influence the University of Utah to halt the impending press conference.

Nonetheless, the process by which this article was published could hardly be considered routine. Under usual circumstances, a scientist sends an article describing a piece of work to an appropriate journal. The editor submits it to a qualified peer, perhaps two or three, who review the work, check some of the results, and perhaps question the author, who may then revise the article.

Other interested scientists might receive pre-prints and offer corrections. (In this day of e-mail, information spreads far faster and more widely than it once did.) Here, Pons and Fleischmann -- and probably their lawyers -- rushed to publication because they feared that information was leaking out. They apparently requested the Journal of Electrochemistry to turn the article around within a few days. This meant little time for a peer to review the paper carefully and no time for a large number of scientists to even learn about it before the press conference. But such was the reputation of Pons and Fleischmann that the journal was willing to accept the article on their terms.

The two dominant forces were the rush for patent priority and the desire for intellectual primacy. It is true that information had, in fact, started to leak out and the rumors were beginning to become unmanageable.

The lawyers, not the news officers of the university, even controlled the critical press release that accompanied the public announcement. Fogle says "three batches'' of lawyers vetted it -- "I'd never had lawyers review a news release'' -- eliminating important information that might have alleviated some of the initial skepticism among reporters and scientists. The original draft, for example, included specific details about the experiment, how it was set up and how long it took to generate the results. The fact that it often took months for the experiment to produce results was excised; thus, other scientists were not warned that they could not have overnight success in replication.

The "incubation time" required to load the proper ratio of deuterium into palladium to achieve the minimum threshold turns out to have been the primary reason for all the early failures to replicate the excess-heat effect. This threshold did not become widely known until several years later, long after a majority of the world's exasperated and frustrated scientists abandoned their research efforts in this area.

The draft also offered details on the paper, its title, the journal in which it was to be published, and when. The lawyers seemed totally dense about the significance of this information. They eliminated all of it; then, as a compromise, they restored mention of the paper's submission to a journal in a single sentence on the second page. "The lawyers were beyond my control," Fogle said with resignation. "But these were concessions I would fight over, significantly fight over, if l had to do it again. I wish I had known what boundary I could push to get what I knew was needed.''

Here are the highlights from the University of Utah press statement, "embargoed for release'' on Thursday, March 23, 1989, 1 p.m. MST:

SALT LAKE CITY - Two scientists have successfully created a sustained nuclear fusion reaction at room temperature in a chemistry laboratory at the University of Utah. The breakthrough means the world may someday rely on fusion for a clean, virtually inexhaustible source of energy. ...

"What we have done is to open the door of a new research area," says Fleischmann. "Our indications are that the discovery will be relatively easy to make into a useable technology for generating heat and power, but continued work is needed, first, to further understand the science and second, to determine its value to energy economics."

[After two more paragraphs discussing nuclear fusion, this is the entire second paragraph of page 2:] Their findings will appear in the scientific literature in May [emphasis added [by Footlick]] ... [On page 3 of the release, the researchers address the background of their work:] Pons calls the experiment extremely simple. "Observations of the phenomenon required patient and detailed examination of very small effects. Once characterized and understood, it was a simple matter to scale the effects up to the levels we have attained.''

The researchers' expertise in electrochemistry, physics, and chemistry led them to make the discovery. ''Without our particular backgrounds, you wouldn't think of the combination of circumstances required to get this to work '' says Pons. (Source: New Energy Times)

Some may call the discovery serendipity, but Fleischmann says it was more accident built on foreknowledge. "We realize we are singularly fortunate in having the combination of knowledge that allowed us to accomplish a fusion reaction in this new way." ...

The research strategy was concocted in the Pons' family kitchen. The nature of the experiment was so simple, says Pons, that at first it was done for the fun of it and to satisfy scientific curiosity. "It had a one in a billion chance of working although it made perfectly good scientific sense.''

The two performed the experiment and had immediate indication that it worked. They decided to self-fund the early research rather than try to raise funds outside the university because, says Pons, "We thought we wouldn't be able to raise any money since the experiment was so far-fetched.''

Add insouciance to lack of detail.

At once the cold fusion announcement was labeled ''science by press release," which was particularly unfortunate for Utah since its Office of University Communications is one of the most admired in the nation. In particular, the office, headed for many years by Raymond Haeckel and since 1990 by Fogle, has earned the respect of science writers for its handling of a number of medical and genetic advances at Utah, including the artificial heart and the discovery of genes for neurofibromatosis, colon cancer, and common hypertension. But the public affairs office could not get a grip on the cold-fusion episode.

Fogle, who was then director of the news service under Haeckel, first learned about the project two months before the eventual release from Vice President Brophy, who said that a major story was coming but that he could not tell her whose work or what department. "I went back to him the next day," Fogle recalled, ''and said, you know, Jim, I can't do anything to prepare for this story until I have a little bit of information. I've got a science writer who is going to need to research the area.' So he told me that there was work going on in the chemistry department on room-temperature fusion. l knew about hot fusion, but I did not know about any other kind. So I sent Jim Bapis, the science writer, to the library and said, 'Learn everything you can about fusion, hot and otherwise.''' (Source: New Energy Times)

"As a former science writer," Fogle said, "I'm familiar with all the hoops that you jump through before making a major scientific announcement, all of which lend credibility to the work that you're doing." Still, although outside lawyers had been consulting for months, the news service received no further information until a week before the announcement was scheduled. After a press release was hurriedly prepared, and edited by the outside lawyers, the news service was ordered not to distribute it in advance, even under embargo, either to newspapers and television stations in Salt Lake City or to key science reporters around the nation.

Everyone in the administration assumed that an embargo would be broken. But Fogle argued that if reporters at least had the release in hand, they would better understand what they were dealing with, especially when they began to call their stable of experts for comment. (As it happened, the experts on fusion might not have been able to help much, since they were physicists and this report came from a chemistry department.) Further, if they had no meaningful information about the announcement, national science reporters, most of whom are in New York and Los Angeles, would have little impetus to cover the press conference.

The administrators compromised. They created a single paragraph of information that Fogle was to use -- and not expand upon -- when calling key science writers around the country whom she dealt with regularly. She was also not allowed to invite the reporters to arrive a day early and study the information. Fogle remembers first calling Jerry Bishop of the Wall Street Journal, the nation's most highly regarded science reporter.'' (see footnote) [W]hen he started asking questions, I realized I needed to answer those questions, so I did to the best of my ability." Still, without the release, most reporters were reluctant to come, although some newspapers and television networks sent stringers. "I think the curiosity got them more than anything else," Fogle said. "But I felt as if I had not served the role I should have served in providing them with the information they needed to make the judgment. It makes for a little notch in [our] believability.''

Footnote from Truth and Consequences:

So intense was the anger among some physicists that they attempted to have the American Physical Society national journalism award given to Bishop in 1990 rescinded shortly thereafter because he had won it for coverage of cold fusion. In a 1991 article for a National Association of Science Writers publication, Bishop assessed the episode: "If [the cold-fusion story] was true, it would be one of the big scientific stories of the century. If it wasn't true, there was going to be a lot of controversy. Either way, our readers would like to know what happened, and we could set it in context. ... The concept that it's irresponsible to report things before they've been peer-reviewed simply doesn't apply in cases like this or in a lot of science reporting."

The university news service did not worry about the Salt Lake City media, with which it had excellent relations. Local television reporters were cooperating in arrangements to open Pons's laboratory on the morning of the news conference, for both television and still pictures, because everyone expected chaos after the announcement.

Then Fleischmann's ill-timed interview in England took effect. Fogle was at her desk at about 5:30 p.m. on the eve of the press conference when she received a call from Ed Yeates, the science reporter for KSL-TV in Salt Lake City, a friend with whom she had worked for a decade. Yeates said that he had called a researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who told him that the London story was on the wires. Yeates said he considered the embargo broken and was running an advance on that evening's news. A few minutes later, Fogle turned on the television set in her office and saw a computer-generated image prepared by Yeates with the help of the Los Alamos researcher. "My lord, that's what the experiment looks like," she remembered saying to herself.

The next day the press conference itself went smoothly, although reporters mainly ignored the introductory warning from President Peterson that the experiment might be fusion or it might only be interesting science. But no one was prepared for the reaction to the news. The university press office handled more than 1,500 calls in the following four weeks, from reporters, scientists, attorneys, brokers, literary agents, book authors, corporate executives, and philanthropists. At various times, 10 staffers were responding to media inquiries, directing callers to researchers, and trying to quell false rumors. But tension increased between the lawyers -- both the university's and Pons', who demanded secrecy- and the public-relations staff, who thought it important to provide clear external communication. And it didn't help that Pons and Fleischmann, who had been cordial and candid at the first press conference, had now stopped talking. (Source: New Energy Times)

In the weeks following the announcement, the two chief boosters of Pons and Fleischmann's research, Peterson and Brophy, pushed for government and private financial support. In April, testifying before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Peterson exhibited a touch of the defensiveness that colored many of the university's actions: "What led to the Utah experiments? A capacity to see an old problem from new perspectives was required. Chemists, electrochemists, looked at a problem traditionally reserved for physicists. ... I would like to think that it may not be by chance that it happened in Utah, a university which has encouraged unorthodox thinking while being viewed by the world as a conservative, even socially orthodox, place. There in fact may be something valuable in isolation from more traditional centers." His critics claimed that Peterson was campaigning for earmarked funds. He insists that all he sought was federal support for cold-fusion research, with which Utah would take its chances. In any case, no federal funding resulted. But an enthusiastic Utah state legislature appropriated $5 million almost at once, primarily to create the National Cold Fusion Institute, which was established in the summer of 1989 in the university's Research Park.

Audio recordings of the March 23, 1989 press conference are available at New Energy Times:

http://newenergytimes.com/v2/audio/1989UtahPC1.mp3
http://newenergytimes.com/v2/audio/1989UtahPC2.mp3
http://newenergytimes.com/v2/audio/1989UtahPC3.mp3

The second, third and fourth press conferences took place in Baltimore, MD at the American Physical Society meeting. Two special sessions on cold fusion had been added to the conference. They took place on the evenings of May 1 and May 2. A very brief press conference occurred at 4:00 p.m. on May 1 and a longer one occurred later at 5:00 p.m. The fourth press conference took place on May 2 at 10 a.m.

The American Institute of Physics had invited Nathan Lewis of Caltech to host this conference. Lewis reportedly had conducted the most thorough examination of cold fusion in response to the Fleischmann-Pons claims and was thought to be an ideal speaker to brief the press.

“As most of you know," Lewis said, "we’ve been working on this since day one, in fact, since the evening of the [Utah] announcement."

"We’re going to do the experiments necessary to see if this works," he told the world's science media.

Despite having learned about "cold fusion" only 39 days earlier, Lewis' confidence that his team at Caltech would unequivocally prove or disprove "cold fusion" was, at best, bold, to assert that he could prove a negative.

At worst, it was disingenuous. Thirty-eight days earlier Lewis had told his two postdocs, who had already begun building a "cold fusion" experiment, that it wasn't worth more than one day's effort.

At this press conference, Lewis summarized the presentation he would give later that evening.

"We’ve uncovered a lot of methods that do not work. For instance, not stirring your solutions [in the cell]. You have temperature gradients [differences between one point and another]. The one electrode will inherently generate more heat than the other. The electrodes, being big pieces of wire, also were cooling pins. They are efficient at removing heat from the system if you do not agitate the system and stir it. The temperature you measure depends on where you put the thermometer. You can get a very large range of errors this way and those errors place serious doubt on the accuracy of the numbers that were measured by Pons and Fleischmann. When we stirred the solution uniformly to obtain measurements that were independent of where you put the thermometer, we see no evidence for any excess heat."

Unfortunately, Lewis neglected to consider that Fleischmann and Pons were world-class electrochemists. Not only did Fleischmann and Pons take heed of the basic basic requirement to stir the cells in order to insure a uniform temperature measurement across the cell, but they designed their cell in such a way that the natural geometry of the cell, in conjuction with the bubbling action of the electrolyte, accomplished the task without the need for external stirring devices.

Moments later, Lewis told reporters, "we believe the excess heat will turn out not to be there." The finality of his conclusion was unambiguous. Later that evening during the presentations, nearly every physicist as well as Lewis, the lone chemist, presented "evidence" for every conceivable flaw, and then some, that Fleischmann and Pons had supposedly made.

The next morning at 10 a.m., Lewis' colleague physicist Steven Koonin gave his press conference. Koonin had amused the audience the night before with his defamatory comment that "we are suffering from the incompetence and perhaps delusions of Drs. Pons and Fleischmann."

Koonin repeated parts of his presentation from the previous evening and added yet more invective and ridicule.

“It’s all very well to theorize how fusion might take place in a palladium cathode," Koonin said, ... "One could also theorize about how pigs could fly if they had wings, but pigs don’t have wings.”

In addition to "violating" theory, Fleischmann and Pons were chastised for violating a sacred protocol by announcing their discovery before their paper appeared in the published literature.

“If we’re going to have publication with press conferences," Lewis said, "we should have peer reviews as press conferences, too.”

 

Six weeks after the [Utah press conference, and a week after the Baltimore press conferences], the new celebrities, Pons and Fleischmann, were quickly added to the agenda for a semiannual meeting of the Electrochemical Society of America in Los Angeles. One of the smaller scientific organizations, and unsophisticated about public attention, the society reacted badly to the novel circumstances. Organizers of the meeting angered reporters at the outset by demanding that they pay the full conference registration fee to hear the cold-fusion presentation -- contradictory to the norm at scientific meetings, which reporters are usually encouraged to attend gratis. Only a handful paid, but Pons and Fleischmann agreed to participate in a press conference afterward.

Soon the schedule was falling apart, and the two chemists, who were supposed to speak in the late afternoon, did not get on until late evening, by which time everyone was tired and annoyed. And the Pons-Fleischmann presentation -- much anticipated since this was their first opportunity to address their own scientific society -- was a dud. Hugo Rossi, dean of the College of Science at Utah, who attended the meeting, was shocked. It was "so weak," Rossi said. "We had discussed what they were going to do, and I was convinced that they were going to come on very strong, with very important results. Instead they showed what was basically a silly video of bubbles in a tube."

Rossi was oblivious to the significance of the "bubbles in the tube." This videotaped demonstration provided a graphic rebuttal to the most significant allegation of procedural error, made the week before at the Baltimore American Physical Society meeting, challenging Fleischmann and Pons' claim of excess heat.

lf the presentation was weak, the press conference was a fiasco. The Salt Lake City newspapers and television stations were all represented, along with a sizable Los Angeles press contingent and some national science writers; as many as 150 reporters and a dozen television cameras jammed into a room much too small and much too hot. After a few timid questions, a physicist from the California Institute of Technology -- a nonjournalist who had crashed the press conference -- commandeered a microphone and began shouting loaded questions at Pons and Fleischmann. Soon everyone was grabbing microphones and interrupting each other; a number of people, some of them physicists cholerically denouncing the work, stood on chairs to shout. Pons and Fleischmann sat stony faced in the television lights, perhaps stunned, certainly angry. After a few minutes they announced that they would participate no longer, stood up, and walked out.

This was only one of numerous insults public and private. Physicists at Utah, pressured by their friends at other institutions, were demanding that the university disavow the research. In one bizarre case, a man who claimed to come from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology camped outside the doors of Pons and Fleischmann's laboratory, trying to force his way inside when the door was opened. Telephone calls and faxes arrived from around the world, calling for more information or calling the experiment a fraud.

Taubes identified this man as Marcel Gaudreau, a nuclear engineer with the MIT Plasma Fusion Center.

Pons and Fleischmann had a right to consider themselves harassed. And they were not prepared psychologically for stardom. Fleischmann appeared to have little understanding of American behavior; the relatively little time he spent in Salt Lake City was out of sight in the laboratory. That left Pons to oversee the experiments and respond to questioners both inside and outside the university. And this unassuming chemist, once regarded as friendly to colleagues and solicitous of students, changed. Fogle said that when Pons suddenly refused to speak with her, she could not provide answers to reporters that might have slowed the critical onslaught.

Dean Rossi was also puzzled. A mathematician himself, he thought he could moderate the clash among the university's chemists and physicists, so he had volunteered to serve as director of the National Cold Fusion Institute when it was established in 1989. But Pons and Fleischmann were "incredibly secretive," Rossi said. "Almost immediately, several laboratories [at Utah] in chemical engineering and in physics and in metallurgy started up experiments and tried to get basic information, filling in some of the details that were missing in the [original] article. Pons and Fleischmann felt this was harassment. [We thought] they should have been really anxious to have their colleagues at this institution rather than at other places confirm their results.''

Rossi's doubts intensified after the Los Angeles meeting. "I began to think this wasn't just a kind of paranoia but was really their lack of confidence in their own work. I began to share the skepticism of some other scientists." Rossi said he then carefully reread their original paper and concluded that "It is a bad paper. It's confusing. It's contradictory. The data is massaged data; they don't present the raw data that they had."

Rossi's perspective explains some of the reasons for the development of the skeptical perspective toward Fleischmann and Pons. Rossi did not fully comprehend the numerous variables and nuances of the controversy, both technical (as in the debate over the bubbling and the cell temperature gradients) and human. He failed to understand how Fleischmann and Pons felt harassed. No wonder Fleischmann and Pons were less than enthusiastic about cooperating with the National Cold Fusion Institute, which Rossi had volunteered to direct.

As history has revealed, Fleischmann and Pons did not lack confidence in the core of their claim, excess heat, as evidenced by their 58-page seminal paper in 1990, which stands unrefuted as of 2006. However, and by all accounts, including that of Fleischmann and Pons, their original eight-page "preliminary note" was a mess. Additionally, the two chemists acknowledged -- though not quickly enough -- shifting one of the data sets. This data shift, of the gamma spectrum, has been recognized historically by observers on both sides of the controversy as a sloppy, innocent mistake, though it does not invalidate their heat measurements, the result of a completely different set of scientific tools and observations.

References:
[1] Beaudette, Charles, Excess Heat: Why Cold Fusion Research Prevailed, 2nd. Ed. South Bristol, ME, Oak Grove Press, 2002.
[2] Footlick, Jerrold K., Truth and Consequences: How Colleges and Universities Meet Public Crises, American Council on Education, August 1997.
[3] Taubes, Gary, Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion, New York, N.Y., Random House, 1993. p. 97.

 

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