Cold Fusion and Scientific Method
Dedicated to my parents, Halina and Marek Kowalski,
born and educated in a Polish city Plock
Ludwik Kowalski (Ph.D. Nuclear Physics)
Professor Emeritus, Montclair State University, USA
List of Sections
2) Scientific method
3) Role of Accepted Scientific Theories.
4) Data and Explanations
5) Unfortunate Terminology
6) Two US Government Investigations
7) Three Interesting Biographies
8) A Brave Publisher: Initial Backlash
9) More Questions than Answers
The widely known international feud among scientists about so-called Cold Fusion was triggered in 1989 after a sensational press announcement made by two respected electrochemists. They claimed to have discovered something extraordinary, a nuclear process resulting from a chemical process. This article focuses mainly on selected social, not scientific, aspects of the still ongoing feud.
Keywords: Cold Fusion, Feud, science-and-society, scientific method,
The area of research known as Cold Fusion (CF) has been the arena of a long-lasting science-and-society feud. The situation is paradoxical. Faced with climate change and pollution, societies need new sources of abundant clean energy, but neither their scientific leaders, whose obligation is to use tax money wisely, nor their scientific establishments, support research in the CF area. This neglected area of research, according to some experts, can lead to development of new inexpensive sources of safe nuclear energy. The probability of this is low but not negligible.
The feud is unprecedented in terms of duration, intensity, caliber of combatants, and the deviation from basic principles of scientific methodology, on both sides of the barricade. It is also unprecedented in terms of two formal governmental investigations of the field. The US Department of Energy (DOE) has evaluated and rejected the CF claim--a chemical process triggering a nuclear process. But the rejections of this sensational claim were based on "theoretical grounds," not on results from independently performed experiments.
The self-correcting nature of scientific progress in both social and natural sciences depends heavily on peer review. Depriving PhD-level scientists of that process, as practiced by editors of some scientific journals, violates the "New American Physical Society's Ethics Guidelines," published in Physics Today January 2003. The author of this article attempted unsuccessfully to validate one CF claim, as described in his published scientific paper (1), and on his website (2).
2) Scientific Method
Scientific methodology (3,4) refers to the set of norms developed to deal with unavoidable mistakes and controversies in research. Most mistakes are recognized when new results are discussed with colleagues, or via the peer review process. Occasional errors in published papers are subsequently discovered during replications conducted by other researchers. Scientific results, if valid, wrote John Huizenga, must be reproducible on demand. “When errors are discovered, acknowledged and corrected, the scientific process moves quickly back on track, usually without either notice or comment in the public press" (5). The process, in other words, is expected to be self-corrective.
The so-called "scientific method" is not a list of divine commandments. It is a set of norms described by scientists, and by those who observe their ways of working. The author of this article is a retired nuclear physicist who has observed cold fusion researchers for nearly three decades, and has participated in several CF conferences. He also took part in three cooperative projects (in which the original results were not replicated). The CF episode is an unusual controversy resulting from a sensational 1989 announcement made by Fleischmann and Pons (F&P). The event (6,7,8,9,10) divided physical scientists into two feuding camps (11,12,13,14,15,16). This is a rare example of a situation in which the expected self-correction of the scientific process was essentially stopped by two formal governmental interventions.
3) Role of Accepted Scientific Theories.
Why is the CF controversy unresolved? Because CF experimental claims are not reproducible on demand, and because they conflict with the generally accepted theory of nuclear reactions. A theory, in this context, is a logical/mathematical structure that agrees with a wide range of already verified experimental data. Scientists know the rule–theories guide, experiments decide. But they are very reluctant to abandon accepted theories. To be reluctant means to insist on additional verification of new experimental results.
Referring to such situations, Huizenga wrote (5): “There are occasionally surprises in science and one must be prepared for them.” Theories are not carved in stone; scientists do not hesitate to modify or reject them when necessary. Rejecting a claim because it conflicts with a theory is not as convincing as rejecting it on the basis of reliable empirical data. In that sense methods of validation of claims in physical and social sciences are similar. Scientific theories are models of objective reality; they are often changed, or modified, when new facts are discovered.
4. Data and Explanations.
A discovered experimental fact is usually presented to the scientific community for independent confirmation or refutation. Experimental results are accepted--at a high level of confidence--when they become reproducible on demand. Absence of such reproducibility justifies suspicion of possible errors or fraud. Methods of validation of theories (explanations of facts) are slightly different. New scientific theories are also presented to a community of experts, to be independently evaluated. The level of confidence in a theory depends on the validity of underlying assumptions and on the rigor of quantitative analysis. But even a most reliable scientific theory, called a law, is said to be falsifiable, in principle, when conflict with reproducible data becomes undeniable (17). Such a conflict could trigger a scientific revolution (18).
To explain something usually means to identify causes and to construct a logically satisfying model of reality. An attempt to explain a fact, or to resolve an apparent logical conflict, usually leads to discoveries of other facts. A classical example was the discovery of planet Neptune, in 1846. A more recent and less widely known example was the discovery of a subatomic particle named neutrino. Experimental data collected in the 1920's showed that beta rays (electrons emitted in radioactive decay) had lower mean energies than expected on the basis of the theoretical E=mc2 formula. Austrian theoretical physicist W. Pauli solved this "logical inconsistency" by suggesting that tiny neutral particles, later named neutrinos, were responsible for the missing energy. His hypothesis was formulated in 1933. Experiments confirming the reality of neutrinos were performed 23 years later.
5. Unfortunate Terminology
The essence of the discovery announced by F&P was "excess heat." Their small electrolytic cell generated more thermal energy than the electric energy supplied to it. Trying to establish priority, under pressure from University of Utah administration, the scientists announced their results at a sensational press conference (March 23, 1989). They wanted to study the CF phenomenon for another year or so but were forced to prematurely announce the discovery.
The unfortunate term "cold fusion" was imposed on them (19). Why unfortunate? Because it created the unjustified impression that cold fusion is similar to the well known hot fusion, except that it takes place at much lower temperatures. This conflicted with what had already been known--the probability of nuclear fusion of two heavy hydrogen ions is negligible, except at stellar temperatures. It was a mistake to interpret experimental data before the results were recognized as independently reproducible. In fact, F&P had no evidence for the emission of nuclear reaction products listed in their first published paper (6). The only thing they knew was that the measured excess heat could not be attributed to a known chemical reaction. Claiming that the measured excess heat was due to a nuclear process was premature. The phrase "chemically-unexplainable " does not automatically translate into "nuclear."
Suppose the discovery had not been called cold fusion; suppose it had been named “anomalous electrolysis.” Such a report would not have led to a sensational press conference; it would have been made in the form of an ordinary peer review publication. Only electrochemists would have been aware of the claim; they would have tried to either confirm or refute it. The issue of “how to explain the heat” would have been addressed later, if the reported phenomenon were recognized as reproducible-on-demand. But that is not what happened. Instead of focusing on experimental data (in the area in which F&P were recognized authorities) most critics focused on the disagreement between F&P's intepretation and accepted theory. Interpretational mistakes were quickly recognized and this contributed to the skepticism toward the experimental data. Using unconfirmed data to justify the nuclear origin of excess heat, by F&P, was inconsistent with the prevailing norms of scientific methodology. A more recent case of violation of scientific norms, by a CF researcher, Andrea Rossi, is described in (16).
Those who seek information on the Internet should be aware that some authors refer to CF as CMNR (Condense Matter Nuclear Reactions) and as LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reactions).
6. Two US Government Investigations
The significance of CF, if real, was immediately recognized. Some believed that ongoing research on high-temperature fusion, costing billions of dollars, should be stopped to promote research on CF. Others concluded, also prematurely, that such a move would be opposed by “vested interests” of some mainstream scientists. Responding to such considerations, the US government quickly ordered a formal investigation.
A panel of scientists, named ERAB (Energy Research Advisory Board), headed by John Huizenga, was formed to investigate CF in 1989. The final report (20), submitted to the DOE several months later, interfered with the normal development of the controversial field. Modest financial support for additional CF research, by the DOE, NSF, and other agencies, was practically stopped after the negative report was published.
It is interesting that only one of the ERAB's six conclusions referred to CF experiments; the remaining five conclusions were about anticipated practical uses of CF, and about various aspects of the suggested interpretation of unconfirmed results. Instead of focusing on reality of excess heat, critics focused on the fact that the hypothesis was not consistent with what was known about hot nuclear fusion. The same observation can be made about the six ERAB recommendations. Only one of them referred to possible experimental mistakes. It is clear that the ERAB observations were based mostly on ”theoretical grounds,” not on independently performed experiments. The unfortunate governmental intervention had one serious and unprecedented consequence--editors of some scientific journals started rejecting manuscripts written by CF scientists, bypassing peer review (21).
The second DOE investigation (22) of CF was announced in March 2004, nearly 15 years after the first. A group of 18 experts was selected to review new CF claims, such as linear correlation between excess heat and generation of helium. Helium was reported to be produced at the rate of one atom for approximately 24 MeV of released thermal energy. This was consistent with the theoretical E=mc2 formula for the suggested radiation-free fusion. But the DOE experts were not asked to perform correlation experiments; they were asked to read the report submitted by five CF scientists (23), and to vote on whether or not the evidence for the claim was conclusive. Such a way of dealing with a controversy was not consistent with the scientific method. What was already known about CF at that time is described in two recently published books (24,25).
Ideologically and politically motivated rejections of scientific claims are not new. Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei are well known examples. Lysenkovism--Stalin’s discrimination against geneticists--is a more recent illustration. And cybernetics, in the Soviet book entitled “Short Philosophical Dictionary,” was defined as “bourgeois pseudo-science serving American imperialism.” The author of this article accepted this kind of "truth" as a communist student in Poland (26). What can be done to make sure that similar discrimination will not be used in the US, to impose "the truth" about evolution, stem cell research, etc.?
7) Three Interesting Biographies
The discovery of CF
was made nearly simultaneously by three highly competent scientists: Martin
Fleischmann, Stanley Pons (both chemists) and Steven Jones (physicist). Excerpts from their biographies, taken
from (27), are show below.
was born March 29, 1927, in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia, to Jewish parents. The
family came to England to avoid persecution by the Nazis. Martin went to high
school in Sussex, England during the war, attended Imperial College in London
after the war (1947-1950), and later distinguished himself by achieving at age
forty the professorial Chair in Electrochemistry at the University of
Since 1986, Fleischmann has been a Fellow of the Royal Society, an honor given only to the most distinguished of scientists. The author of over 200 scientific papers -- a number of them with Pons as collaborator -- and a number of portions of textbooks, Fleischmann won the Royal Society of Chemistry's medal for Electrochemistry and Thermodynamics in 1979. He was president of the International Society of Electrochemistry (1970-1972). In 1985 he was awarded the Palladium Medal by the U.S. Electrochemical Society. "Martin Fleishmann Memorium written by by Nobel Laureate Dr. Brian Josephson, (28) is also worth reading.
who is almost young enough to be Fleischmann's son, was born in 1943 in the
small town of Valdese in the North Carolina foothills Pons's Italian Protestant ancestors had fled religious
persecution in the old world... He was drawn to the world of chemistry as a
child, as many youngsters had also been, encouraged by parent-bestowed
chemistry sets and the like.
Pons attended Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, graduating in 1965, and began advanced studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. But with his doctorate almost in hand in 1967, he left school to work in his family's businesses. Eventually, his love for chemistry drew him back to active science. With the encouragement of faculty at University of Southampton in England, he entered its graduate program in chemistry and received his Ph.D. there in 1978. Martin Fleischmann was one of his professors. ... Pons came to the University of Utah in 1983 as an associate professor, becoming a full professor in 1986, and Chairman of the Department in 1988. He has authored or coauthored over 150 scientific publications.
Steven Jones was well known to physicists and the hot fusion community, which gave him a credibility that Fleischmann and Pons could not match. Born in 1949, he was raised a Mormon, with all that his religion's outlook and demanding codes of conduct implies. Jones was a missionary in Europe for the Church of Latter-Day Saints and pursues his science with religious fervor, almost literally. His University stationery bears witness, inscribed as it is with the Brigham Young University motto, "The Glory of God Is Intelligence."
That Jones came out with a dissimilar but closely related item of cold fusion news at about the same time, ironically, may have boosted the credibility of Fleischmann and Pons in their claims. But there was initial confusion about what Jones was asserting, because of his well-known earlier work on cold fusion induced by muons.
Much of the difficulty that ensued between Fleischmann and Pons on one side and Jones on the other -- a friction that has now lessened considerably -- can be understood in part from a chasm of personality differences.
8) A Brave Publisher: Initial Backlash
The author of this article, as mentioned above, has a diary-like collection of more than 400 essays devoted to CF (2). In the very first essay he wrote: "In the fall of 2002, to my surprise, I discovered that the field of cold fusion was still active. This happened at the International Conference on Emerging Nuclear Systems (ICENES2002 in Albuquerque, New Mexico). Several papers presented at this conference were devoted to cold fusion topics. Intrigued by the discovery I started reading about recent cold fusion findings and sharing what I learned with other physics teachers."
Recently, Kowalski has written: "Referring to the CF, Huizenga used the term 'fiasco,' meaning failure. It was indeed a failure. Why was it a failure? Because no convincing YES or NO answer has been found to a simple question: Was generation of unexplained heat discovered by F&P an example of a nuclear process triggered by a chemical process? A convincing NO would be as valuable as a convincing YES, for both science and society.” What follows is an extract from another essay.
"The presentation of George Miley, at the International Conference on Emerging Nuclear Energy Systems (Albuquerque, 2002), was very interesting. He is a nuclear physics professor from University of Illinois, and the editor of Fusion Technology (FT), a journal of the American Nuclear Society and the European Nuclear Society. Miley thinks that 'Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) potentially offers a radical new approach that could provide portable power units in the 1-50 kW range.'"
also reported that: 'Soon [after initial
excitement] scientific sentiment turned against CF, and editors of Nature and
the APS Physics journals quickly took the stance that CF did not have a
“scientific” base. Thus, they would not even send papers on the topic out for
review, shutting the door for any CF papers in these key journals. Despite that
example, I stuck with the original decision that papers passing review should
appear in FT. As a result, by default, FT
virtually “cornered” the market for CF papers! A backlash quickly followed,
with “hot fusion” members of the FT editorial advisory board and some readers vocally
questioning my decision. Some declared these papers would “destroy” the
journal. At that time, I strongly reiterated (and continue to do so) that the
purpose of a journal is to communicate basic science and technology so that
papers which can pass review should be published as long as the topic is
consistent with journal coverage. I emphasized that I did not feel that I had
the right as editor to arbitrarily turn papers away because they were from a
"questionable" field. . . .
Another criticism of my editorial policy on CF has been that since I have done research on the topic, I must be biased in favor of it. It’s true that I have had papers in most ICCF meetings, starting from the original LANL (Los Alamos National Laboratory) meeting in Santa Fe. This criticism, in my view, amounts to a double standard. My initial selection as FT editor, and the other two journals, was based on my recognized research on fusion, lasers, and plasma physics. This track record was assumed to provide me with better insight into the technical content of the papers, and allow me to select top reviewers.
In universities, teaching and research are well recognized as reinforcing each other. The same is certainly true for editing and research. Why wouldn’t the same be true for CF? Again, this ethical issue is left to the reader to consider, namely, do we want general managers as journal editors or, do we want experts from the field, despite possible conflicts of interest? In conclusion, the issue of whether my FT position, as opposed to Nature’s closed-door policy, is proper for a scientific journal must be left to the reader.
Others have somehow tried to associate fraud with the initial introduction of CF via a public news announcement. That view is that the news announcement was purposely distorted for personal gain. To my knowledge, that is simply not true. The information provided was a factual presentation of the data as these researchers saw it at the time. However, the news release approach is a most serious break from traditional behavior in any scientific field. In retrospect, it must be noted that the pressures on Pons/Fleischmann at that time were tremendous. Indeed, I would suspect that others who have been so vocally critical of them may have turned to this route if they were placed in a similar situation. Still, the disclosure of scientific results via new releases is certainly to be avoided if at all humanly possible. Such actions are certain to create a “backlash” in the community that interferes with (or may even stop) the scientific search for truth. Everything from the scientific community’s evaluation of the basic science to funding for the field can become grossly distorted by the emotions set in force. Indeed, in the case of CF, the resulting "backlash" soon isolated the field from the mainstream scientific community.'"
"Miley also wrote: 'With the growing pressures on researchers in modern society, we must work hard to preserve an atmosphere where the primary objective is to “seek the truth”. Clearly, the turmoil and divisions in the CF area created by persons both within and without the field confused and retarded this search for truth. With human nature being as it is, it is hard to believe that we can prevent a repeat of the CF episode in future areas where high stakes of money and prestige are involved. The education of upcoming scientists, journalists, research managers, etc. in scientific ethics is the best defense. Indeed, my only formal training in the area was a one-hour course on “professional ethics” required of all science/engineering students when I was a senior in college. '"
9) More Questions Than Answers
Long-lasting controversies about scientific discoveries are not new. Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift is a good illustration. Mainstream geologists rejected experimental data supporting his now-accepted theory for half a century. The CF controversy, however, seems to be different both in terms of governmental involvement and in the caliber of adversaries on both sides of the divide. Huizenga and Fleischmann were global leaders in their speciaties, nuclear science and electrochemistry. Most leading CF researchers are Ph.D-level scientists. The same is true for many scientists who reject CF claims.
The CF episode is a social situation in which the self-correcting process of scientific development was not allowed to evolve. To what extent was this due to extreme difficulties in making progress in the new area, rather than to negative effects of competition, greed, jealousy, and other "human nature" factors? Such unanswered questions are worth addressing in the context of debates about science and society. (29)
One thing is undeniable; the world is still waiting for the first reproducible-on-demand demonstration of nuclear-generated heat resulting from a chemical process. No progress is possible when reported experimental data are not published and not independently tested in other laboratories. Considering potential CF benefits, and relatively low costs of research in this area, the DOE should have helped to resolve the controversy, one way or another, in a well-equipped national laboratory, during the second investigation. But it failed to do so. How can such a policy be explained? Why is CF research allowed to stagnate, by those who are responsible for effective use of tax money? These questions also belong to debates about science and society. Will the past three decades be recognized as the painful beginning of a new paradigm, similar to those described in (18), or will this period be known as a pseudoscientific episode? How can the persistence of the CF controversy be explained? Were the US government interventions necessary or not?
This article is an expanded version of my Letter to the Editor of C@EN (Chemical and Engebeering News), submitted on December 7, 2015.
1. Ludwik Kowalski: http://pages.csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/cf/407driscoll.pdf
2. Ludwik Kowalski: http://ludkow.info/cf/
3. K. Pearson "The Grammar of Science," Meridian Books, Inc., New York, 1957.
4. Robert.K. Merton, "The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press,1979, 267-278.
5. J.R. Huizenga, "Cold Fusion: The Scientific Fiasco of the Century, "Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, Oxford, 1993.
6. M. Fleischmann, B.S.Pons and M. Hawkins, J. Electroanal. Chem., 261, 301, 1989.
7. F.D. Peat, "Cold Fusion", Contemporary Books, Chicago, 1989.
8. E.F. Mallove, "Fire from Ice: Searching for Truth Behind the Cold Fusion Furor," John
Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1991.
9. F. Close, "Too Hot to Handle: the Race for Cold Fusion," Princeton University Press,
Princeton, New Jersey, 1991
10. G. Taubes, "Bad A Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion,"
Random House, New Park, 1993.
11. Robert L. Park, " Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud," Oxford University Press, USA (November 15, 2001)
12. Jed Rothwell, "Cold Fusion and the Future;” 2004; Amazon Kindle Book; also online,
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14. Ludwik Kowalski, " Cold Fusion: Reality or Fiction," Progress in Physics,
April 2012, L17-L19.
15. J. Driscoll et al. "Issues Related to Reproducibility in a CMNS Experiment."
Journal of Condensed Matter Nuclear Science, 2011, v. 5, 34-41.
16. L. Kowalski, "Rossi's Reactors - Reality or Fiction?" Progress in Physics,
2012, v. 1, 33-35.
Also see: http://www.ptep-online.com/index_files/2012/PP-28-07.PDF
17. Popper K.R. “Science as Falsification;” 1963, at:
18. Kuhn T.S. " The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." University of Chicago
19. Fleischmann M. Private conversation in 2003.
20. DOE-1989 report: http://lenr-canr.org/acrobat/ERABreportofth.pdf
21. L. Kowalski L.,"History Of Attempts To Publish A Paprer," 6/29/2004
22. DOE-2004 report: http://lenr-canr.org/acrobat/DOEreportofth.pdf
23. P.L. Hagelstein et al: http://lenr-canr.org/acrobat/Hagelsteinnewphysica.pdf
24. Ed. Storms, "The Explanation of Low Energy Nuclear Reactions", 2007,World Scientific Publishing, Co, London, UK.
25. Ed. Storms, "The Science of Low Energy Nuclear Reaction: A Comprehansive Compilation of Evidence about Cold Fusion, 2014, Infinite Energy Press, Concord, NH,USA.
26. Kowalski L. "Tyranny to Freedom: Diary of a Former Stalinist," Wasteland Press,
Shelbyville, KY, USA, 2009. (Also http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/life/intro.html)
27. Eugene Malove, "Fire from Ice; Searching for Truth Behind the Cold Fusion Furror," John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1991.
28 Brian Josephson, "Martin Fleishmann Memorium,"
29. Kowalski L. "Cold Fusion Is Not Voodoo Science;" personal recollections recorded