Sunday, August 12, 2012

Cold fusion and climate change

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"

Remember: you read it first on Rabett Run!


Russell said...

True Whigs should rejoice that it has taken but a single generation to progress from science by press conference to history of science by press conference .

Jeffrey Davis said...

What's to be feared is that catastrophic effects of AGW are close at hand and will make things like ironic headlines a distant memory.

Anonymous said...

Though it is rarely (if ever talked about), the "Gold Rush mentality" played a significant role in the Cold Fusion saga.

The idea that one can "strike the mother lode" with minimal effort is what drove the early gold rushes in the American west, of course, and still seems to live on in some places (eg, Utah).

University of Utah also seems to have a bit of an inferiority complex (or at least did back in 1989) and Cold fusion was their way of 'showing the world" that they could do science to rival the big names like Cornell and MIT.

They showed em all right! yes indeed.

Right after the announcement, Cornell physicists were basically ridiculing the claim of Pons and Fleishman that they had achieved "fusion in a test tube".


EliRabett said...

Eli was never very active in this area, but he knew/knows many electrochemists and materials folk. The universal reaction of the electrochemists was what are these guys smoking, everyone knows that palladium and hydrogen are a tangled ball that no one can untangle and everyone with an ounce of sense should avoid. One of the materials guys Eli knows had been forcing hydrogen through palladium to study desorption (hydrogen molecules landing on palladium atomize, the atoms lose their electron and the protons squeeze through the palladium matrix, pick up an electron on the other side, and if the metal is heated desorb as H2. This is the basis of hydrogen purifiers, and why no one buys expensive pure hydrogen anymore, you just get a palladium frit, heat it a bit, put the impure hydrogen on one side and suck the pure stuff off the other side). Eli asked his friend if the grad students were glowing in the dark. They were not.

The evil part of the story is that DOE descended on the national labs asking why two guys in Utah came up with this world beater, something that the Utah publicity machine was proclaiming. Everyone had to drop everything and chase with wil o the wisp. The cost in careers and money was not zero.

But there is all sorts of expensive weird out there. Try hydrinos

Anonymous said...

"what are these guys smoking?

Prolly hydrogen -- or palladium-laced hydrogen.

Might explain why they eventually got the blues.

By the way, U o f Utah president Chase Peterson (who orchestrated the Cold Fusion Fugue) was also the barker for the Barney Clarke "Artificial Heart Circus"(Greatest Stroke on Earth) to the public.

The guy just could not keep away from the crackpot stuff.


Aaron said...

And what about the climate scientists that underestimated global warming?

Will anyone remember that AR4 got sea ice loss wrong? Will anyone remember how they went after "Alarmists" that actually had the numbers about correct?

As we see with Arctic sea ice loss, mainstream science is often far enough from the truth, that I admire scientists that are willing to go out and challenge the conventional wisdom and say what they think.

Yes, P&F were naive and subject to wishful thinking. However, I would rather have a science of adventure and enthusiasm than of "cover your ass defensible data" and scientific reticence.

I see only ordinary deceit and chicanery, in P&F but more than average bravery.

Ed Darrell said...

One of the lesser known tragedies, as these things go: Neither Fleischman nor Pons was particularly anxious to do more than get some support to see what had really happened. Utah then had a good and active press operation to tout its science achievements. The ball got rolling, but it took on a life of its own beyond what the researchers anticipated.

Of course I'm biased, as a Utah grad, and as someone who staffed the Senate committee that dealt out the science research money, on the staff of a Utah Senator.

But it is my experience that no one involved can accurately predict what will happen when science hits the news. In this case, with hindsight, everyone would have been better off to labor in some obscurity while checking the results. That didn't happen, and it's too bad for Fleischman, Pons, Utah, and the world in general.

At my Bathtub, I deal frequently with scientific clap-trappery, such as creationism and intelligent design, warming denial, and Rachel Carson Hysterical Opposition Syndrome. Cold Fusion gives us guidelines that should be useful. For example, how can we be somewhat assured that intelligent design is not valid? After all, a couple of papers sneaked into publication, right? But in the end, ID is no more valid that cold fusion, an interesting hypothesis -- except, of course, cold fusion has much more experimental backing than intelligent design (which does not make cold fusion valid, either). Why should we be wary when pro-DDT groups claim Rachel Carson to be the Great Satan and inaccurate on scientific research? Because they always do it in a press event, and never in the science journals -- where, it must be remembered, at least there was some support for cold fusion over the years.

At some point in history, we need to develop ways to cheer on scientists who, it turns out, were grotesquely wrong about things, if for no other reason than they give us pause and caution us to be properly skeptical. Intelligent design and warming denialism are not right because they are found uncredible by most scientists, as many or most scientists also found uncredible Darwin's ideas versus Lord Kelvin's age-of-the-Earth calculations, or because most scientists dismissed Wegener's work on what we now call plate tectonics. It is not enough to be disregarded by most scientists; one must also have the facts on one's side.

It's just over a week since NASA pulled off a spectacular feat of landing a Corvair-sized machine, softly, on Mars. They did that in the full glare of the public spotlight. Somebody has to be willing to fail in public, for most things to progress at all.

It would be nice if such failures would not result in the other work of that person being forgotten. Poor Fred Hoyle -- he was a Steady State man; how did he ever get knighted as the advocate of the hypothesis that was so incredibly wrong? (And why didn't Alpher and Gamow get Nobels for their work?)

Russell said...

Farewell schadenfreude, hello Sera Vu, the sense of amusement at finding tomorrow's headlines unfunny because you laughed at them yesterday.

Anonymous said...

Alexander Cockburn recently died and is most notable to me for the following comment:

"While the world’s climate is on a warming trend, there is zero evidence that the rise in CO2 levels has anthropogenic origins. For daring to say this I have been treated as if I have committed intellectual blasphemy."

The statement is not so much a blasphemy an it is an unwarrented assertion. There is no worthwhile backing for such a statement. As his statements on this subject were my introduction to his thought I felt no need to learn any thing more about him. After he made the above statement why would you listen to anything else he has to say?


Anonymous said...

Th Utah legislature (Senate and House) were basically willing performers in the Cold Fusion circus.

They immediately appropriated $5 million dollars without even waiting to see what outside scientists said -- to say nothing of if anyone else would be able to replicate the results of Pons and Fleishman.

Nearly everyone involved threw all skepticism right out the window because they wanted so badly to be the focus of the world (which they were, of course, but not for the reason they had hoped)

And Pons and Fleishman were certainly no innocent bystanders.

If they had really been interested primarily in "seeing what really happened", they would have insisted on going through the standard scientific peer review process FROM THE GETGO (submitting a paper which documented their method in enough detail that others could replicate it -- or at least attempt to replicate it -- without playing the stupid "100 questions" guessing game that they ended up playing)

Had they done so they could have saved themselves, the University of Utah Chemistry department (the physics department was not buying it, by the way) and the state of Utah an immense amount of headache and embarrassment.


EliRabett said...

Ed, you coulda gotten trampled on the rush to the patent office. In addition Utah put up 4.5 million and, as Eli recalls, Utah Senators (Garn) and Representative were quite active in trying to get more money (like 25 mill) for Cold Fusion Research at the Uni.

Russell said...

Let it not be said that Cold Fusion was profitless:

a few small fortunes were made by cannily shorting palladium futures .

Cockburn likewise had a theoretically cogent, if thermodynamically incoherent explanation for his disbelief in AGW.

Why shouldn't a Beat The Devil columnist write of the temperature of the Earth's core constantly rising, when former vice-presidents speak of subterranean temperatures of "millions of degrees" on network TV ?

Anonymous said...

So wasn't the real embarrassment not Utah's but the other Unis that rushed in to confirm within weeks?

"You gotta be first, and you gotta be right."

Probably even worse to be second and wrong than first and wrong.


John said...

Pons and Fleischmann made a number of mistakes. For example, they claimed to have detected fusion from deuterated water (D2O) in their test tubes.
Did they run a control experiment on ordinary water (H2O)? No! Most physicists stopped listening at this point. Even biologists know ya gotta have a control group.

To some extent it was chemists (believers) vs physicists (skeptics). Eli spoke with some chemists who were skeptics.(See above remark from his Royal Rabettness).

Pons and Fleischmann claimed to have observed three signals: (1)excess heat, (2) production of helium, and (3) neutrons (at low count rates).
Skeptics pointed out: (1) measuring a small power imbalance is hard in an open system (P&F's test tube). (2) Helium often found in chemistry labs, used by spectroscopists running gas discharges, or by leak checkers. ("How many leaks could a leak checker check if a leak checker could check leaks?") So the local background of helium in a chemistry department can be MUCH higher than you might naively expect. (3) Neutrons are not easy to detect, and neutron detectors have their quirks. OK, call it "features". And if P&F had produced the power output they claimed from nuclear reactions, they would have bombarded with a high neutron dose. High enough to make them dead men.

In the wake of P&F's original experiment, some other groups claimed to have replicated one or two of the three signals that P&F claimed to see. But nobody else detected all three.

Why not?

Because (as the joke went)


Years later, Bob Park of the APS told me, with a sigh, "I miss cold fusion!"

Marion Delgado said...


Gore corrected his misstatement, made casually and off the cuff in a free-roaming casual discussion on late-night TV, immediately.

On the other hand, Tim Ball has not to date, to the best of my knowledge, corrected an error he made in writing, where he got Archimedes Principle completely wrong. That was published and he made it the BASIS of one of his anti-climate science screeds.

Jeffrey Davis said...

Cockburn had to be lying to say that. He wasn't a blasphemer. He was a liar.

David B. Benson said...

Ah, but there is cold fusion. It is not a power source but rather something LANL needs to know about; LANL has a meson facility which does the heavy lifting.

Brian said...

I'm no fan of the ridiculous things Cockburn said about climate or about Libya but I doubt he was lying. Never underestimate people's ability to fool themselves.

Hugh Laue said...

LENR hasn't died yet -perhaps just taking a long time to hatch?

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

Hugh, Oh, LENR is dead, all right. It's just that nobody has had the heart to break the news to it. I'll stick with physics, thank you.

Jeffrey Davis said...

If Cockburn said there was no evidence he was lying. He knew the difference between "evidence" and "proof". Evidence has been piling up since the 19th century.

Anonymous said...

Quote: (first name) (last name) dies at (years); claimed global warming a "hoax"

Remember: you read it first on Rabett Run!
* * * * * *

Uh, no. The passing of Frederick Seitz, dishonored denier and serial liar, was met with just a headline in NYT, 2008.

jay alt

Anonymous said...

Those who were around and more or less compos mentis in latter 1960s may care or not care to remember their stance on "Anomalous Water".

In a world full of artifacts where surprising results were surprising because they were extraordinarily unlikely, it was thought that perhaps just this once ...

A wholly new form of water entered from stage East and was soon being produced and studied in a small island nation.

I guess that it satisfied a need.


John said...

Dear Jay Alt:

You're absolutely right. Here is the 2008 obituary of Frederick Seitz.

Andrew Johnson said...

It is a shame to read blogs like this, which do not focus on evidence and thorough research - such as that done by people like Dr John Bockris (smeared by Gary Taubes) and Dr Eugene Mallove (murdered in a supposed bungled burglary in 2004). I would guess that most readers of this blog will not even bother to research the connection between Dr Steven E Jones (BYU), Dr Judy Wood (formerly of Clemson) and one of her students (also murdered) around the time Wood published research relating to the statements Jones had made in relation to his own research relating to the destruction of the World Trade Centre on 911. But as I have said myself, "Any conclusion can be reached about anything - but the value of that conclusion will be inversely proportional to the amount of evidence ignored".

In other words, in science, experiments and evidence need to be fully and fairly studied without proclamations, which serve vested interests, being made.

In relation to this (and it seems particularly relevent to the field of LENR-CANR research) I always like to quote President Eisenhower from his 1961 speech:"The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. "

I have tried to follow Eisenhower's advice in become an "alert and knowledgable" citizen - and what I have found has completely shattered my view of the world. Perhaps it is this which discourage people from looking too deeply.

EliRabett said...

Prof. L. has a winner