I was a professor at the University of Utah coming back to my office one late afternoon when one of my colleagues announced to me excitedly that they had discovered cold fusion. Right there in Utah! Naturally I was skeptical. But within the week Pons and Fleischmann held their press conference and the event seemed sufficiently significant to warrant walking over and witnessing it in person. I was impressed with their sincerity but remained skeptical of their results.
Then the naysayers got to work. It soon became quite obvious that the arguments back and forth sprang from a social rather than scientific basis. Pons and Fleischmann were chemists; all the physicists immediately chimed in that fusion, which had hitherto been the domain of physicists, could not possibly be done by chemistry, by which was meant by chemists. Physicists look down on chemists, but mathematicians look down on both so I had no particular pony in the race and remained completely open-minded but skeptical. I might add that the fusion projects favored by physicists involve billions of dollars which they were keen to maintain. Very keen. It was my first exposure to the truly ugly acrimony that lies behind science as it is actually practiced. Like sausage and politics, it is best not to see the process of creation.
There was another angle to the quagmire. Our favorite publication, the New York Times, came out early and forcefully with the position that Fleischmann and Pons were wrong. They knew that definitively because they were the New York Times. The subtext of their argument was essentially that such a thing, if it existed, could not possibly have been found first in Utah before the Ivy Leagues. Looking back, I believe that was my very first hint that something might not be quite right at the New York Times, which up until that point I had venerated unquestioningly. It was very clear to me, sitting there in Utah as I was, that there was a strong whiff of regionalism and probably what amounted to anti-Mormon bigotry driving their apparently unwarranted vituperation. Little did they know that the University of Utah is to Utah roughly what Austin is to Texas, which is to say that it is the center of anti-Mormon feeling within the state. That wasn't going to stop the NYT, which seemed rather ill-informed on the issue.
Scientists from around the world immediately tried to duplicate the Pons-Fleischmann experiment and something strange happened. Some people could duplicate the results some of the time, or so they said; others could not. And, worst of all from the scientific point of view, no one was ever able to precisely define or understand the conditions under which the experiment was replicated. That was deadly, and under the weight of a tsunami of antipathy from physicists, the New York Times, and as it seemed everyone east of the Mississippi, the whole thing was written off as a hoax and a ridiculous one at that.
But was it?
I personally remained quite skeptical for a long time, but eventually became convinced that the effect was real although only intermittently replicable. I became convinced because another professor at Utah in the engineering school had decided that the chemists were completely off the deep end and had set out to prove so definitively. He set up a hundred or so beakers exactly replicating their conditions, set them to running, and found that nothing happened. He was on the verge of denouncing them publicly when...one of the beakers started firing up and showing, apparently, cold fusion. Then another. Ultimately several did so, but which ones and when and under what conditions were questions neither he nor anyone else could ever answer. This left the whole field in complete ignominy. Most of the public thought all that had happened was a couple of Mormon hustlers had tried to pull a fast one. (Neither of them was Mormon.) Most of the public remains soundly convinced that there was never any effect, it was all a hoax, much as most of the public is now convinced that Bush did not do his job on Katrina because he hates black people.
More recent experience with the MSM in general and with the NYT in particular should perhaps persuade us to rethink the whole scenario.
In the meantime, the scientific establishment has, very very quietly, continued with the research. After years of batting it back and forth, a blue-ribbon Department of Energy panel of scientists carefully reviewed the evidence again a couple of years ago and, contrary to the popular belief, decided that--far from being a clearcut hoax--the evidence is still uncertain. We still don't really know if the effect is real or if it's an artifact of the experimental apparatus. Here's a quote:
"Most scientists think that cold fusion is laughable, but when the dust settled, the researchers reviewing our work were evenly split."
cold fusion researcher at George Washington University in Washington DC
(Oh, and as an aside, researchers in Utah later dug up an article from the 1920's(!) in which a researcher had long ago stumbled across the same phenomenon, again without consistent reproducibility. The article appeared in--can you guess it?--the New York Times.)
Enter physicist Rusi Taleyarkhan of Purdue University. He believes he has now definitively created desktop fusion, albeit through a novel method. Instead of using electricity as the input mechanism he uses ultrasound. Looks good. There's just one problem:
the experiment doesn't always work, and the group is not sure why. Seth Putterman, a physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has also tried to verify some of Taleyarkhan's experiments, notes that the paper does not reveal how many failed runs were required before the team saw a trace of fusion neutrons.
Sounds very familiar. It's enough to make strong men weep. Well, this time around there's a physicist doing it, and he's east of the Mississippi, so maybe there's a chance it will be accepted into the mainstream. Or maybe not. Indiana is pretty far out west as far as the parochial inhabitants of Boswash are concerned. (But after Alito's grilling, I guess Princeton is no longer considered a sufficiently acceptable institution of higher learning either. You just can't win.) Or maybe it's all hokum? Will the evil New York Times receive it's well-earned comeuppance? Will big-time hoaxsters Pons and Fleischmann finally be definitively debunked? Stay tuned. Watch this space for developments.