The obituary in the Los Angeles Times reads
Martin Fleischmann dies at 85; claimed cold-fusion success.
I can recall those exciting days back in 1989. Instead of the usual procedure for announcing a discovery - manuscript submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal with a press release - university research teams held press conferences to announce their findings.
On at least one occasion, a press conference was held to withdraw a claim that had been advanced at a previous press conference. Oh, yes, there were some red faces.
Bob Park of the American Physical Society scoffed at "sightings" of cold fusion, noting that they have "generated more confusion than cold fusion."
The local media called up my physics department, and got through to me. Was I willing to speak on camera? Yes. So they sent a camera crew to interview me. While they were on their way, I scratched my head to figure out what to say. I was skeptical because electrochemistry operates at a scale of electron volts, while nuclear reactions require millions of electron volts. In a recent phone conversation, a friend (and chemistry professor) made a helpful suggestion: "one possibility is that they (Pons and Fleischmann) are crazy".
I decided to formulate my answer, and give that answer no matter what the question was.
What I said was "don't count your chickens before they hatch."
What I meant was: I'm 99% sure this is baloney. But I'm giving myself some wiggle room in case it turns out to be real, against all odds. A century ago, some world-famous scientists scoffed at the possibility of nuclear power. I didn't want to join them.
Here's the interchange, as best I can recall:
TV newscaster: "Assuming that it is a real discovery, how long will it be before we see these devices in our everyday lives?"
My answer: "It's too early to say*. First we have verify that this effect is real. Don't count your chickens before they hatch."
*This is a useful phrase. It makes you sound wise, while you're really saying that you don't know.
Some months later, I spoke with a University of Utah faculty member about the cold fusion business. He identified himself as a personal friend of Pons, but thought the whole business was an example of pathological science.
The whole cold fusion uproar ended in a matter of months, at least for most scientists. During the brief time interval when it was considered a live possibility, a faculty member from a Big Name University (BNU) visited my university. He remarked that some BNU faculty were investigating, but hadn't found anything. The BNU administration clamped down and stopped the release of any information, even to announce that they didn't see anything. Perhaps the scientists resented the interference of the BNU bureaucrats, but when the dust settled, I hope the scientists were grateful.
When an academic screws up big time, it can make the papers, even decades later. When the prominent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper died in 2003, his obituary in the Telegraph remembered that two decades earlier he "made an egregious ass of himself" when he proclaimed that the purported "Hitler diaries" to be genuine, while in fact they were forgeries.
How do you think the headlines will read when a prominent global warming denier dies?
(first name) (last name) dies at (years); claimed global warming a "hoax"
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