Tuesday, July 31, 2007

COLD FUSION AS A METAPHOR ON WHAT SHOULD HAVE HAPPENED TO O'HANLON AND POLLACK: Though condemned and ignored, the desktop fusion lobby struggles to be heard, anyway

Your friendly neighborhood GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow reads his mail.

Rest assured, I pay attention to every bit of it. However, I sometimes decline to drop everything to publish your remarkable news and sometimes I don't even ack the sender.

In relation to this post, DD mentions that there were some who took offense to my use of Fleischmann and Pons as a comparison with Iraq War quacks Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack. This was unfair to Fleischmann and Pons, who were not quacks, I was told, and thousands of papers have been published on cold fusion.

I felt one e-mailer had a point worth addressing, if not for the reason proffered in his communication. I was a bit harsh with Fleischmann and Pons in comparing them to O'Hanlon and Pollack. Their cold fusion did not help start a war, unlike the cold fusion of the two Brookings rascals.

That said, DD took a quick review of the public record on cold fusion. And it would be a good thing for journalists covering the Iraq War Glee Club to see.

Of course, Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack wouldn't want to be treated like Fleischmann and Pons or the remaining members of the tabletop fusion research lobby. It would mark the end for them and they would be reduced to presenting talks in back rooms at national security conferences, attended by only a handful of adoring fans and followers. The New York Times and major media would stop calling.

There would be no more TV appearances for them. No huzzahs in glossy magazines, no requests to write 1,000 word parcels of common-sense defying received wisdoms.

Consider the following.

"Unlimited energy brewed in a bottle sparked a worldwide sensation nearly 18 years ago," reported the Chicago Tribune in March of this year, coincidentally the same month I compared Kenneth Pollack to Fleischmann and Pons.

"Promises that cold fusion would power the planet, however, were shot down in little more than a month," it continued in "Once touted unlimited energy source generates litte interest today."

"On Thursday, researchers who continue to believe in cold fusion drew fewer than a dozen spectators to Chicago for the national meeting of the American Chemical Society," it continued.

" 'I don't know that my efforts have been dismissed,' said George Miley, director of the fusion studies lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 'They've just been ignored.'"

" 'These are mostly the same guys who jumped on board 18 years ago,' said Robert Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland who wrote 'Voodoo Science,' a book about pseudoscience. 'To my knowledge, they haven't convinced a single soul outside their own community.'"

"The Wall Street Journal's front-page story [on cold fusion in 1989] gave the claims [of Fleischmann and Pons] credibility, and within a week cold fusion landed on the covers of Time, Newsweek and BusinessWeek.

"In other traditions," said [a sociologist to the newspaper], "the people in charge might say go get these guys and burn 'em at the stake. In science, they just get ignored."

In 2006, the Salt Lake Tribune covered a portion of the American Physical Society's annual meetings devoted to "nonsensical findings" -- an description one could just as well apply to O'Hanlon and Pollack.

"The American Physical Society's annual March meeting includes a handful of presentations that event organizers acknowledge are either scientifically suspect or outright nonsense. Year after year, a handful of researchers present findings on:"

* "Free energy" sources that will solve the world's energy woes.

* The merits of cold fusion.

* Einstein's major blunders.

* Geological evidence for Noah's flood.

Source: American Physical Society

9/11 Conspiracy Theorist Also Researched Cold Fusion

In one odd eruption, the Salt Lake Tribune reported in 2006 on a Brigham Young professor of physics who once had supported cold fusion.

"Brigham Young University placed physics professor Steven Jones on paid leave Thursday while it reviews his controversial research on the collapse of the World Trade Center.

"Jones published the paper, 'Why Indeed Did the World Trade Center Collapse?' in the book, 9/11 And The American Empire: Intellectuals Speak Out, and online, and began lecturing in Utah and across the country about his theories, which allege that the planes crashing into the towers created a diversion for an unnamed group, possibly the U.S. military, that had planted bombs inside the towers."

Near the end of the article, the newspaper reported: "It is rare for a tenured professor to be put on paid leave at BYU. Jones has taught at BYU since 1985 and has been widely published in scientific journals. He garnered international attention in 1987 when he claimed to have created small amounts of cold fusion, though he said it was not enough for a stable energy source."

In 2006, Martin Fleischmann was mentioned in a daily newspaper in connection with the development plans for an as yet unseen home-heater run by cold fusion.

He was ballyhooed and then discredited and then largely forgotten," reported the Deseret Morning News. "But cold fusion pioneer Dr. Martin Fleischmann still holds the secret to a cheap energy source for the world, says a California company that plans to produce prototypes of a cold fusion-powered home heater, with Fleischmann as 'senior scientific adviser.' "

In 2006, DD's local newspaper, the Los Angeles Times published a rather more substantial article on the controversy surrounding R. P. Taleyarkhan of Purdue.

"Evoking echoes of the cold fusion fiasco more than a decade ago, Purdue University said Wednesday that it was reviewing the work of physicist Rusi P. Taleyarkhan, who claims to have developed technology to achieve tabletop fusion," wrote science reporter Thomas Maugh. For the record, this research is called bubble fusion .

"Purdue's announcement came as the journal Nature released findings Wednesday from its investigation of Taleyarkhan's widely publicized claim and as a UCLA researcher challenged Taleyarkhan's report that he had detected fusion byproducts in a key experiment."

"Taleyarkhan expressed confidence that Purdue's review would vindicate his claims, but other researchers said the evidence was likely to be a death knell for the controversial technology, which proponents had claimed would eventually become a major energy source ... It now appears that the technology Taleyarkhan and others proudly call 'star in a jar' is probably no more than a flash in the pan."

While at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Taleyarkhan had published in 2002 in the journal Science. That paper became a source of intense controversy when other scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory protested.

"After the external review process had been completed, [Science] scheduled the paper for publication," wrote Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief for the magazine. "Then we were contacted by senior science managers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), who said that certain reservations had developed about the findings and their interpretation. In a series of telephone and e-mail contacts, they urged that we delay the scheduled publication of the paper."

Objections continued to come in although the paper was eventually published.

"I certainly agree with [Taleyarkhan critic]Robert Park and others that Science has acted irresponsibly here," wrote a scientist from Princeton in a subsequent e-letter. "Science knew that the result was controversial in the sense that it was unlikely to be correct, and that in fact an internal review by ORNL had cast serious doubt on the submitted paper ... The general press and the public at large are very gullible and are easily influenced by sensationalist articles that offer 'amazing' results that are too good to be true."

Another scientist wrote in to thank Science magazine for the article. It had performed a service in showing other researchers where to being throwing stones.

And throw stones they did.

The LA Times 2006 article continued: "Added retired physicist Michael J. Saltmarsh, who was assigned by the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory to check out Taleyarkhan's initial report of the technology: 'It was very sloppy experimental work, and I simply don't believe it.... All of his papers are internally inconsistent, and they don't really make sense.'

"The episode has parallels to the 1989 announcement by two Utah researchers, B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, that they had created fusion at room temperature by forcing deuterium into special electrodes with an electrical current. Their findings were never replicated."

Purdue University subsequently exonerated Taleyarkhan in the review mentioned by the LA Times article.

However, the scientist and research remained hobbled by controversy. A House oversight committee began investigating Purdue over the integrity of it, commenting in a staff report: "...no other researchers have been able to independently replicate Dr. Taleyarkhan's experiments, including researchers from three universities ..." (Title: Investigation by Purdue University of Allegations of Research Misconduct by Dr. Rusi Taleyarkhan, Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Science and Technology, May 7, 2007.)

House Committee Report on Purdue Investigation, Requests New Results.

In 2004, the Boston Globe published a story on another cold fusion scientist, Peter Hagelstein.

If one examines the public record, the stories tend always to be the same.

Cold fusion is getting a new look or there has been a controversial paper published on tabletop fusion or bubble fusion, always something fantastic. There is some noise and then everyone goes back to ignoring the small self-absorbed crew of professors working their dreams of fabulous desktop energy.

In "Heating up a cold theory," Beth Daley wrote, "Although he's a tenured Massachusetts Institute of Technology associate professor, Peter Hagelstein leads a life of exile.

"He has never made full professor. He no longer has a lab. Barely anyone came to a lecture he gave about his research a year and a half ago. Virtually all of Hagelstein's problems stem from his study of cold fusion, a type of nuclear reaction that if it exists at all might have the power to create unlimited, clean energy, essentially on a tabletop. Fifteen years ago, two University of Utah chemists claimed they created such a reaction, an announcement quickly denounced as quackery."

"Today, cold fusion is as scientifically scorned as UFOs."

But cold fusion was about to heat up, it was claimed. Of course, it didn't.

"To other scientists, this is the natural course of bad science: It doesn't get much public funding, and eventually goes away," reported the Globe.

Update (8/01):

E-mails on the cold fusion set of posts continue to arrive.

DD recommends gentle correspondents spend time reading the thrust of Dick Destiny blog, like today's entry on Moloud Sihali and the famous terror trial in which he was involved.

Please note, too, that the name of this blog is not Cold Fusion Hater or The Man Who Would Deny the Truth About Tabletop Fusion.

Those blogs and webpages may be somewhere else.

Although your well-composed thoughts are carefully read to the last word, comments --vexingly -- are moderated.

However, while obviously serious missives were penned today, at this time only one thoughtful contribution from reader Chris is excerpted:
Something that often irks me, however, is when a perfectly good term gets hijacked in the press and subsequently ruins yet another piece of my personal semantic space.

Cases in point: "cold fusion" and "tabletop fusion".

These terms have been permanently enshrined as synonyms for quackery thanks to the misadventures of Fleischmann & Pons and the [mainstream media's] subsequent goofiness.

They are, however, both perfectly good labels for non-quackery-based phenomena.
A bit of technical detail is elided for the writer's central point:
Continued research into either of these fields now, sadly, carries with it the Fleischmann & Pons legacy, which tends to doom any such efforts to being staffed by whack-jobs and funded at the most meager levels.

This is not to say that these areas are any more or less likely to bear fruit than the better funded hot fusion efforts, but limitations on research into them due to widely held associations to snake oil salesmen strikes me as a damn shame.


Blogger Sean O'Neil said...

I find it frightening that people wouldn't understand your invoking Pons & Fleischmann. Those two scammers created an utter fiction just to get notoriety for themselves and more grant $$$ for the University of Utah.

People who try to argue that cold fusion is real are disturbing in their ignorance of reality. They probably also believe that General Motors killed the engineer who designed an internal combustion engine that could run on tap water.

"Free energy" fans seem to be just as fantasy-laden as the people who think libertarianism is a functional theory of society. They fail to see the difference between a quaint theory, and the theory's failure under testing.

We shouldn't be too surprised, though. Most Americans are scientifically ignorant. That explains how we can have so many nay-sayers on global climate change, and on other environmental damage.

It also explains the sales of "electromagnetic" bracelets and the like.

Maybe if I eat some mud to "cleanse my bowels" I will see things more clearly.

1:45 PM  

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