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61) How will cold fusion be remembered?

Ludwik Kowalski (May 21, 2003)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

I have no doubt that cold fusion will be remembered as an unusual event in the history of science. Hundreds of qualified researches (Ph.D.s, publications, recognitions, etc.) are practically blacklisted. In most cases discoveries are debated among scientists without formal investigations initiated by government agencies. Without interventions debates often continue for as long as necessary. In some cases discoveries are eventually validated by other scientists; in others they are shown to be wrong. Occasionally debates linger without leading to definite conclusions; then they die due to lack of interest. But that is not what happened in the case of cold fusion. Less than one month after the discovery was announced the US Department of Energy prompted a formal investigation. In the request to investigate, dated April 24, 1989, one reads:

“In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of interest in the prospects for ‘cold fusion’ based on experiments at universities in Utah and subsequent experiments performed elsewhere. At present, the apparent observations of cold fusion and significant quantities of energy from this phenomenon are being investigated extensively. Because of the potential benefits from practical fusion energy, I request that the Energy Research Advisory Board (ERAB) assess this new area of research. Specifically, I would like the Board to:

1. Review the experiments and theory of the recent work on cold fusion.
2. Identify research that should be undertaken to determine, if possible,   what physical, chemical, or other processes may be involved.
3. Finally, identify what R&D direction the DOE should pursue to    fully understand these phenomena and develop the information that    could lead to their practical application. I request that the    Board provide an interim report on the first item by July 31    and a final report on all items by November 15, 1989".
I think that addressing the issue of “practical applications” was premature and that the special investigation of cold fusion by an appointed board was a mistake. Nine months after the initial announcement at the University of Utah the board issued its final report. In the executive summary of that report one reads:
"The Panel concludes that the experimental results on excess heat from calorimetric cells reported to date do not present convincing evidence that useful sources of energy will result from the phenomena attributed to cold fusion. In addition, the Panel concludes that experiments reported to date do not present convincing evidence to associate the reported anomalous heat with a nuclear process".
This was a correct summary of the situation in 1989. But why did the announcement of Fleischmann and Pons trigger a special investigation? The answer has to do with highly unusual circumstances at the University of Utah described in many books. The president of the university wanted to establish an extraordinary research center to harvest benfits from an unconfirmed discovery. In the same executive summary one reads:
"The Panel recommends against the establishment of special programs or research centers to develop cold fusion. However, there remain unresolved issues which may have interesting implications. The Panel is, therefore, sympathetic toward modest support for carefully focused and cooperative experiments within the present funding system."
In other words, the final recommendation was to treat the announced discovery in the same way as any other scientific claim, to continue studying the phenomenon in different research centers. But that is not how the report was interpreted by our scientific establishment, that is by directors of research granting agencies and by editors of major scientific publications. For them the report was a red light to stop supporting cold fusion research and to stop publishing results of scientific investigations in that area. They saw the report as an authoritative pronouncement that cold fusion was “voodoo science.” This accusation is still used today.

Three reasons for skepticism about cold fusion were enumerated in the report. They were: a) irreproducible data on excess heat, b) absence of expected nuclear reaction products, and c) conflict with the existing theory of the so-called “nuclear tunneling” effect. The report shows that nuclear generation of heat, at the level of 1 watt, must be associated with between 1011 and 1012 reactions per second. It means that an electrochemical cell generating 1 watt of excess heat should produce approximately 1016 reaction products, such as 4He. No evidence for the accumulation of helium was available when the report was written. But the situation today is very different; several researchers have reported accumulation of helium at the expected rate.

Excommunication of researchers on the basis of what they are investigating is unprecedented in the history of science. Two different scenarios can be anticipated. In the first scenario cold fusion is not validated (even after considerable efforts to demonstrate its reality). In the second scenario the reality of cold fusion is finally accepted by the entire scientific community. In one case one would have to explain a strange phenomenon of long-lasting self-deception involving hundreds of scientists in many countries. How do we know that the phenomenon of self-deception is not more common among scientists than we are willing to admit? In the second case a long-lasting conflict between scientists and administrators must be explained. What are the causes of this conflict? How does it differ, for example, from the conflict between geneticists in the Soviet Union and communist ideologists of that country?

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