Robert Park (1931-2020) was a professor of physics and former chair of the Department of Physics at the University of Maryland. He was also the former spokesman of the American Physical Society. For many years, he wrote and published, through the University of Maryland, a brief weekly report called "What's New."
Park kept a pulse on the latest news in science, with a specific focus on physics, and he wrote about each news item in a single pithy paragraph. Park's unrestrained commentary was appreciated by the physics community, which normally confines itself to the formalities of scientific and academic publications.
When he retired as the APS spokesman, APS wrote, "Park established the APS Washington Office in 1983 and has been a DC fixture since, holding politicians, policy makers, administrators, quacks, buffoons and miscreants accountable for their deeds and misdeeds. Shy, timid and retiring only in his dreams, Park has been a candid, caustic critic in real life."
Each of his news reports ended with the immodest proviso: "Opinions are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they should be."
Park was particularly interested in shining the light of science into the dark corners where he believed pseudoscience was taking place. He regularly depicted topics like creationism, climate change and "cold fusion," as foolishness or fraud.
"Cold fusion," as he called it from 1989 until 2006, was one of his favorite topics. But he did not enlighten readers through a process of objective scientific critique, which requires an examination of experimental protocol, measurement, and analysis. Instead, his primary approach was through rhetoric, specifically using mockery and ridicule. Throughout those 17 years, Park's public communication — typically caustic and vitriolic — adversely affected public perception and opinion, sustaining the stigma against the field. The stigma, in turn, adversely affected funding and opportunities for publication in scientific literature.
On March 25, 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle summarized Park's role in the "cold fusion" conflict:
As the world's leading debunker of tabletop fusion, Park has put himself at the center of the controversy. If he's right, historians will look back on him as a sane voice in a wilderness of wild claims. If he's proven wrong, though, his fall from grace will have come many years too late. Few, if any, American scientists have done more than Park to discourage the pursuit of tabletop forms of nuclear fusion.
Park and I had a philosophical convergence in the mid-2000s. I had entered the field with an open mind in 2000. I didn't care about the theoretical improbabilities of "cold fusion." My focus was on the experiments, and it was the experimental results that convinced me that scientists were observing real, new nuclear effects.
Between 2006 and 2008, it became clear to me that the experimental results did not support the theory of "cold fusion" but did confirm a new nuclear effect. A key factor in the development of this distinction for me was learning about the Widom-Larsen theory, which proposes a nuclear but not fusion explanation for the science.
Beginning in 2006, Park began to backtrack and, without explicitly saying so, admit that he was wrong to throw the LENR baby out with the "cold fusion" bathwater.
His first concession took place during the invitation-only, closed-door Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) meeting in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, on Dec. 12, 2006. Several scientists involved in the LENR field spoke there. Only two LENR theorists spoke: Lewis Larsen and Alan Widom. Park was the luncheon speaker. For the first time, Park was no longer the "cold fusion" curmudgeon, and he admitted that LENRs were real, according to Larsen.
"Low-energy nuclear reactions are real phenomena, though poorly understood. There's probably something there, but it’s not well-understood yet," Park said.
The following year, in 2007, after the American Chemical Society hosted a LENR session at its annual conference, Park spoke to journalist Richard Van Noorden, with Chemistry World.
"There are some curious reports — not cold fusion, but people may be seeing some unexpected low-energy nuclear reactions," Park said.
Park was trivializing the matter. Nuclear reactions initiated by low energies have never, throughout science history, been expected.
In September 2008, I published a formal critique of the "cold fusion" sections of his book The Road From Foolishness to Fraud in the Journal of Scientific Exploration.
Finally, on March 27, 2009, in his weekly report, Park commented on the LENR symposium at the American Chemical Society in March 2009, which electrochemist Jan Marwan and I organized:
The American Chemical Society was meeting in Salt Lake City this week, and there were many papers on cold fusion, or as their authors prefer, LENR (low-energy nuclear reactions). These people, at least some of them, look in even greater detail where others have not bothered to look. They say they find great mysteries, and perhaps they do. Is it important? I doubt it. But I think it's science.
Park knew it was time to do an about-face. Yet he was not able to do so with dignity.
Is LENR research important? It is a new branch of science, a hybrid of chemistry and physics. Amazing results have been observed, in fact, for about 100 years. Almost certainly, important developments in science, technology, or both will emerge from this research. Perhaps LENRs will even lead to a new source of clean nuclear energy.