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121) From Wall Street Journal

Ludwik Kowalski (12/26/2003)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

While searching the Internet for something else I found an article about the current cold fusion situation. Written by S. Begley (shortly after the last cold fusion conference ended), the article was published in the Wall Street Journal (Sept. 5, 2003, page B1). The title was: “Cold Fusion Isn't Dead, It's Just Withering from Scientific Neglect.” I think that the article is worth showing on this web site. Sharon Begley wrote:

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"Well, were here, " said physicist Peter Hagelstein to the 150 scientists at the 10th International Conference on Cold Fusion in Cambridge, Mass., last week. "Many people in the scientific community feel we should be shot." That, actually would be a big step up for the beleaguered community of cold fusioneers. It has been 14 years since two little-known electrochemists announced, at the infamous news conference on March 23, 1989, what sounded like the biggest physics breakthrough since Enrico Fermi produced a nuclear chain reaction on a squash court in Chicago. Using a tabletop setup, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, of the University of Utah, said they had induced deuterium nuclei to fuse inside metal electrodes, producing measurable quantities of heat. (Deuterium, aka heavy hydrogen, has one proton and one neutron in its nucleus.)

Although nuclear fusion is supposed to be impossible at temperatures much below those in the sun or a hydrogen bomb, the Utah duo said they had managed the feat at room temperature. That was the opening bell for one of the craziest periods in science. Cold fusion, if real, promised to solve the world's energy problems forever. (There is enough deuterium in sea water to provide electricity for millennia). Scientists around the world dropped what they were doing to try to replicate the astounding claim. Some did, most didn't. When a US Department of Energy investigation concluded in November 1989 that cold fusion was a mirage born of bungled measurements and wishful thinking, the field become a pariah.

Yet the cold fusioneers persist. In paper after paper last week, scientists reported that when a metal, usually palladium, absorbs huge amounts of deuterium into its atomic lattice, the result is more heat than plain old electrochemistry can explain, as well as particles thought to be by-products of nuclear fusion. Some of the most extensive work has been at the Naval REsearch Laboratory, whose scientists found both excess heat and a telltale sign of fusion, particles of helium-4, in dozens of experiments. And Michael McKubre of SRI International, Menlo Park, Calif., is still, after hundreds of thousands of experiment-hours and $4 million, getting more heat from his cold-fusion cells than can be explained conventionally.

Some of the most intriguing research is by physicist Steven Jones of Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Several years before Prof. Pons and Prof. Fleischmann, he reported low-temperature nuclear fusion, but virtually no excess heat. That made his cold fusion a big fizzle as an energy source, but much more acceptable to science. ":The question I get more than any other is 'Are you still doing this?," says Prof. Jones. "The answer is yes, and what we are seeing is very difficult to explain outside of cold fusion. The repeatability of these experiments now approaches 80%." Although he still detects no excess heat, the telltale signs of nuclear fusion "make us conclude that we are seeing new physics."

Although the persistence of the cold fusioneers makes skeptics shake their heads, proponents see it differently. "If there were no effects and it were just experimental error," says Prof. Hagelstein, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "we should have figured out that by now I don't think there is any doubt about the existence of nuclear anomalies. Excess heat might be real, too." Right about here, I would cite physicists explaining why Prof. Hagelstein is wrong. But I can't. Almost no scientist outside the ostracized community listens to its claims anymore, much less critiques them. It has been years since a major physics journal published a paper on cold fusion. Prof. Hagelstein invited some of the original critics to last week's meeting; none showed.

Cold fusion today is a prime example of pathological science, but not because its adherents are delusional. Yes, it's disconcerting that many of the experiments inexplicably and unpredictably stop (and start) producing heat. But the real pathology is the breakdown of the normal channels of scientific communication, with no scientists outside the tight-knit cold-fusion tribe bothering to scrutinize its claims. "If you 'know' that cold fusion is impossible, then you don't have to pay attention to these results," says Prof. Hagelstein, an award-winning DOE physicist before being ostracized for his work in the theory of cold fusion. "The initial criticism was that people needed to do the [heat measurements] right, but now that some groups have spent millions of dollars doing just that, the critics still won't read the papers."

I, for one, would love to hear smart physicists explain why the excess heat from the deuterium-filled palladium reflects not nuclear fusion bu t the release of mechanical energy - sort of like letting go of a stretched spring. I'd love to see a smart critique of a 2002 paper by Japanese scientists, published in a Japanese physics journal that few American scientists see, describing (shades of medieval alchemists) the transmutation of elements through cold fusion. What these claims need is critical scrutiny by skeptics. That's how science normally functions. But in cold fusion, it isn't. And that's the worst pathology of all.

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