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58) An ongoing public debate about cold fusion.

Ludwik Kowalski, <>
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07055 (5/9/03)

A teacher from the Phys-L discussion list sent me pieces from an ongoing cold fusion debate at < > . I am posting these pieces as an illustration. The list “owner” is Sam Smith, the author of Piece 3. He is a journalist and a politician. The pieces illustrate interest in cold fusion.

Piece 1
It's amazing to me that none of the people proposing that government spend money on CF have spent any of their own on it, nor found any venture capital -- there are billions of dollars running around out there looking for a good investment opportunity. If CF had 1/1000th of the potential that its backers claim you'd think they'd be fighting to get their money into the pot first. . . oddly, they only want other people to invest in it.

Piece 2
To the physics community, cold fusion appeared unlikely, but if true, exciting, so a rush of labs tried to replicate the P&F result. While most labs had no luck, a few had occasional and marginal success, though their results can not be verified by other labs. This is pretty much what you expect if cold fusion doesn't work. While cold fusion requires only a modestly equipped lab, judging the results of an experiment is difficult. Rare neutrino emissions, a measure of success, are difficult. Small 'excess' heat is the other prime measure of success, but as this is the difference between large energy inputs and outputs it is easy to make a mistake. A well known similar case where measurement is difficult is calculating the power carried by alternating current electricity. Problems with this have mislead good engineers, and over the years has been the basis of a bunch of perpetual motion machines. If cold fusion really worked, I would expect a reliable setup very similar to the P&F one to have been found in the initial rush of experiments. If something pretty simple sort of works and a bunch a people give it a try, some of them will hit the way of making it work. A reliable method of achieving cold fusion would be new physics, and tremendously interesting even if the energy generated was miniscule.

Piece 3:
I was a physics major at U of I, Urbana-Champaign when cold fusion was first reported, and I followed it closely for a while. Over time it became clear the P&F had done shoddy work, that it was easy to get mislead, and that the other reported successes were marginal and unrepeatable. I think the continuing interest is due to the great interest in energy generation, the relative ease of setting up a cold fusion experiment, and the capacity of people to believe what they really want to be true. [Most of what I know about science I learned in high school, but I have followed the confluence of science and politics, a problem that dates back at least as far as Galileo and is as recent as the numerous duplicative Star Wars reports done for the Reagan administration by defense contractors and universities (and their scientists) in support of the former's political agenda and the latter's budgets. As whistleblower Alric Saucier put it, Star wars was "largely a paper program producing research and development studies. The reports are a shameless waste. Multiple contractors are assigned to do the same work and then to do it again and again. As a rule, the studies are not read. They get stored at different locations outside the Pentagon until room is needed for new ones. . ." That was not just bad science, it was fraud. I was similarly attracted to the cold fusion issue because of political, rather than scientific, factors. After the initial Pons-Fleischmann experiments had proven faulty, a number of anomalies developed. Some of the media seemed to go out of its way to beat a presumed dead horse and a couple of anti-cold fusion books even appeared. The Department of Energy made it publicly clear it wanted nothing to do with the matter.
The Patent Office refused to consider it.

Meanwhile, in other countries research continued, sometimes - as in Japan - with public monies, and some hardy American scientists kept plugging away, all gathering at international conferences notable for media absence. Even Toyota put money into the research, although the Japanese have since slashed their funding. Also in foreign lands was little suggestion that those interested in the subject belonged at Waco rather than in the lab. As one investigator put it, "In the U.S. there is a degree of envy among cold fusion researchers for their Japanese colleagues. In Japan, the debate over cold fusion is polite and scientific. Researchers are not rashly judged or branded incompetent for suggesting cold fusion could be real. Their American counterparts would like to conduct research in a similar atmosphere, without accusations and emotionalism."

The potential import of cold fusion, should it prove valid, along with the economic interests involved - including those involved in conventional energy or getting government money for other alternatives raised the suspicion that some of the opposition might not be scientific at all. The hostility seemed to go beyond skepticism and veered towards political or public relations campaigning. So the Review - in its role as a way station for the new, the imaginative, and the abused - has remained hospitable to the cold fusionists without offering the slightest guarantee that they are right. They simply deserve to have been treated a lot better than they have been. But don't trust me. You can check it out for yourself by attending the Tenth International Conference On Cold Fusion at the Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge, MA in August. Some professor at MIT is the chair. He can probably explain it better than I can.

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