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222) The majority of nature's treasures are still hidden

Ludwik Kowalski (5/17/05)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

Three days ago I received a thank-you note from a person who read some of my units. Replying to this note I made a specific suggestion and I asked a general question about cold fusion. The answer was interesting and worth sharing. It is an example of healthy attitude toward science in general and toward cold fusion in particular. Tom Benson wrote:

“Thanks for the reply. Let me answer your questions in reverse order. No, cold fusion isn't my full-time occupation. I have a job as a marketing director for a large software firm. I do cold fusion work just for the scientific pleasure of it, I suppose, the joy of hunting for a hidden, fundamental physical process, which is very controversial and therefore even more of an adventure.

I have very much enjoyed reading your website and some of the 'motivation' type posts, so if you don't mind, let me relate to you my own motivation. I loved science as a kid. I grew up in one of those post-WWII science towns, where everyone on the block was a nuclear engineer or scientist. Seaborg and Fermi and Rutherford were heroes, and the idea of being some part of a similar discovery, however small a part, was something to dream about. But instead of science I ended up starting a software firm, going the silicon valley route -- very satisfying in many ways but you know how it is, there were always some regrets not doing science.

Anyway, a couple years after cold fusion was announced, I decided to work on it. It seemed an opportunity to do real, old-fashioned science, the opportunity to do something truly novel. The longest of long shots of course, but I had no reputation at risk, and since other more established scientists couldn't risk their reputations (and who could blame them?) then it was left as an opportunity for an amateur like me.

I felt cold fusion was possible (even if a long shot) because I had read a quote by one of the disbelievers. He said 'If cold fusion existed, we would have seen it decades ago.' That seemed completely backwards. If you know the history of the nuclear science, and if you know about the experiments done to chart the cross-sections and energies all of the hundreds of various nuclear fusion and fission reactions -- it was the fundamental nature of those experiments that, if they were triggering a cold fusion type reaction, or even if cold fusion existed in nature, it would NOT have been seen. By definition, cold fusion reactions, if they indeed exist, are reactions that only produce alpha particles and heat, and they only happen when deeply buried in a condensed matrix. So, by definition, they never produce ionizing radiation that would escape to be detected, and therefore they never produce a signature that would be detected by the equipment that nuclear scientists had been using for the past 100 years.

That was intriguing -- the realization that there WAS a blind spot in the nuclear world, and cold fusion just coincidentally fell right in that blind spot. It was a tenuous link but compelling. It made me think; well, there could be hundreds, or thousands of other types of nuclear reactions, a whole universe of reactions, happening all the time, right beneath our feet. But if they don't produce ionizing radiation, or enough energy to see easily, then how would we know? We can't see them. This is one of the most interesting things about science, how much you can miss even in years of hard study.

I also had seen a real-life example: Fullerenes [carbon molecules, such as C60]. For a hundred years, in universities all over the world, hundreds of thousands of skilled organic chemists had been studying carbon. It was one of the most carefully studied, profitable branches of science ever; and in that time spent, they simply missed an entire class of carbon molecules, which existed in nature all the time, in every bit of smoke from a match. And now these new structures are proving to be one of the most valuable compounds in the history of science. This reminds us that the majority of nature's treasures are still hidden, perhaps right in front of our eyes. If it can happen for organic chemistry, why not nuclear physics?

The second big 'aha' was hearing Fleischmann speak, at an early conference, about the fact that the original experiment he and Pons conducted was actually designed to test a decade or more of theoretical work they had done. Their interpretation of QED let them to question whether deuterium ions, compressed tremendously inside a matrix, might spontaneously fuse in a very unusual fashion. So they did an experiment to test this hypothesis -- the original Pons-Fleischmann experiments. The result they got confirmed their hypothesis. This is classic, pure science, the kind we read about in textbooks. Very nice, aggressive, science. So when I read the opposition calling their experiments 'junk science' and 'crap' and other smear campaign-type words, I was irritated. It was highly inappropriate.

On the other hand, I can't presume to say the effect is proven. It requires much, much more evidence. It is also true that many of the experiments are very poorly done and not double-checked. But that says absolutely nothing about the existence or nonexistence of the underlying physics - it's simply the result of the fact that cold fusion experimenters are all doing work on pennies, using old scrounged equipment . . . Thanks again for your response, and sorry about the long-winded reply.”

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