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68) Two meanings of “impossible”

Ludwik Kowalski (May 30, 2003)
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043

In an essay devoted to the Second Law of thermodynamics, downloadable from, one finds a section dealing with the concept of “impossibility.” The author, J. Uffink, wrote: “. . . As we have seen, the basis of the second law is a claim that certain processes are impossible. But there are various senses in which one can understand the term

(i) ‘Possible’ may mean: ‘allowed by some given theory’. That is, the criterium for calling a process possible is whether one can specify a model of the theory in which it occurs. This is the sense which is favored by modern philosophers of science, and it also seems to be the most fruitful way of analyzing this notion. However, thermodynamics has a history of more than 150 years in which it did not always have the insights of modern philosophy of science at hand to guide it. So, one should be prepared to meet other construals of this term in the work of our main protagonists.

(ii) The term ‘possible’ may be taken to mean: ‘available in the actual world’ (or in ‘Nature’). This is the view that Planck and many other nineteenth century physicists adopted. For them, e.g. the statement that it is possible to build a system which exhibits a particular kind of perpetual motion means that we can actually build one. An important aspect of reading ‘possibility’ in this way is that the question of whether a process is possible or not, is not decided by the theory, but by ‘the furniture of the world’, i.e. the kinds of systems and interactions there actually are. This includes the systems and forms of interactions which we have not even discovered and for which we lack an appropriate theory. So, the claim that such a process is impossible, becomes a statement that transcends theoretical boundaries. It is not a claim to be judged by a theory, but a constraint on all physical theories, even those to be developed in the future. Clearly, the idea that the second law is such a claim helps
explaining why it inspired such feelings of awe. . . .”

Those who say that cold fusion is impossible because experimental data have not been explained by an accepted theory should wait for the theory to be developed. Skeptics who think that cold fusion is not possible because it has never been observed in nature are probably not familiar with papers describing experimental data collected in the last ten years. I am referring to data on excess heat, and on unusual nuclear phenomena associated with it, as described in papers downloadable from the library at the web site. Some of them are summarized on my web site, for example, in items 55 and 60. Skeptics familiar with recent experimental data probably suspect that cold fusion claims are fraudulent. What evidence do they have to support accusations of fraud? The issue of poor reproducibility has already been addressed in the item 54 on my list. Here how it was described by B. Bush and J. Lagowski at the Seventh International Conference on Cold Fusion in 1998.

“Many laboratories have reported generating excess heat during deuterium oxide electrolysis at palladium cathodes, many of these reports being extremely convincing. The major difficulty with the topic of excess heat generation is not reproducibility, but rather control. The ability to control the circumstances of the electrolysis so that the excess heat can be ‘turned on, and turned up or down’ has eluded us as yet. Generally, generating excess heat remains unpredictable.”

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