Relativity-11: The cold fusion debacle

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The ‘cold fusion’ episode from back in 1989 illustrates the danger with issuing press releases announcing a major scientific discovery before the scientific community has had a chance to weigh in and sift through the evidence. Two respected scientists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann at the University of Utah discovered reactions producing enormous amounts of heat when the metal palladium was immersed in what is known as ‘heavy water’, which contains a large fraction of water molecules in which the ordinary hydrogen atom has been replaced by the heavier isotope deuterium. The experimenters thought that chemical reactions could not account for the scale of the energy release and were convinced that they had discovered a way to produce nuclear fusion reactions at room temperature, thus opening the way to a vast, cheap, and clean new energy source. Needless to say, this would be a revolutionary discovery, both scientifically and practically.

In March 1989 they announced their results at a press conference to loud fanfare. I remember hearing the announcement on BBC news over my short-wave radio and thinking “Wow! This is huge.” As in the current case of faster-than-light neutrinos, the initial surprise was quickly followed by considerable skepticism within the scientific community because cold fusion went completely against all that we thought we knew about nuclear fusion. For two nuclei to come close enough to fuse, they have to overcome the strong repulsive forces due to both having positive charges. For the nuclei to overcome this ‘Coulomb barrier’, they have to have high energies that are associated with high temperatures as found in the Sun and other stars, which is what enables fusion to be their energy source. What Pons and Fleischmann were suggesting would require some new mechanism to overcome the well-known and well-understood obstacles to low-temperature fusion.

Other scientists pointed out that even if we ignored the Coulomb problem, the byproducts of fusion, which should have been copiously produced, were not observed either, throwing doubt on whether fusion was actually occurring. This objection was countered by claiming that perhaps this was a new form of nuclear reaction that did not produce those specific byproducts. As I pointed out in my series on the logic of science, almost any theory can be salvaged by the introduction of such auxiliary hypotheses. But adopting such stratagems tends to weaken the case for a new theory unless they too can be corroborated with other evidence.

If the claims of Pons and Fleischmann were true, the practical benefits and the revolutionary science they spawned were enormous and this persuaded enough scientists to take the cold fusion claims seriously enough to spend considerable time and effort and money to investigate them. As far as I am aware, over two decades later, though some scientists still continue to work on it, there is still no consistency about the cold fusion reactions, despite periodic resurgences of enthusiasm, enough that the Pentagon is funding further studies. In 2009, the program 60 Minutes did a program giving the history of cold fusion and some new developments.

One problem with cold fusion is that the heat reactions cannot be reliably reproduced. “The experiments produce excess heat at best 70 percent of the time; it can take days or weeks for the excess heat to show up. And it’s never the same amount of energy twice.” This is always a troubling sign. Scientific laws are not idiosyncratic. If they work, they should work all the time in the same way with no exceptions. If there are exceptions, these should also be law-like in that you should be able to predict exactly under what conditions they will or will not occur. Results that occur sometimes with no understanding why are signs that there are some unknown factors at work that are skewing the results.

So what has all this history to do with the recent neutrino story? The fact that this result was also announced via what was essentially a press release and not at a scientific meeting or in a peer-reviewed journal article aroused some concern. Press releases do not face the same degree of scrutiny as a journal article, where a sensational claim of this sort would be subject to close scrutiny before being approved for publication. In the above video, Fleischmann recognized this mistake, saying that he had two regrets: “calling the nuclear effect “fusion,” a name coined by a competitor, and having that news conference, something he says the University of Utah wanted.”

It is not the case that scientists are hidebound dogmatists, determined to cling on to old ideas, as is sometimes claimed by non-scientists when their pet theories (such as intelligent design) are rejected. As I said before, part of the strength of science is that because scientific knowledge is the product of a consensus-building process, it does not get easily swayed by each and every claim of a big discovery. It initially views reports of revolutionary developments with skepticism, waiting to see if the results hold up and corroborating evidence is produced. If so, the community can and does accept the new idea. For example, this year’s award of the Nobel prize for physics was for the discovery that distant galaxies are not only moving away from us (which agreed with existing theories) but are actually accelerating (which flatly contradicted everything we had thought and has led to the highly counter-intuitive idea of so-called ‘dark energy’ permeating and dominating all of space) shows that the community can change its collective mind and accept radically new ideas, and fairly quickly. But the reason such a seemingly outlandish result as dark energy became the conventional wisdom within the short space of less than two decades is because the proponents were able to marshal the evidence in favor of it that survived close scrutiny and was corroborated.

The history of cold fusion, despite not becoming mainstream, also puts the lie to the claims of the so-called intelligent design movement that scientists conspire to suppress those ideas that challenge conventional wisdom. Despite the fact that most of the scientific community is highly skeptical of it being a real effect, cold fusion advocates actually do have a research program in which they do experiments, produce data, and publicize their results. All that members of the intelligent design community do is write books and articles and give talks whining that the scientific community refuses to give them a platform to promote their ideas and that this is because the community is hidebound and refuses to even consider their bold new idea that challenges the accepted ‘dogma’ of evolution.

The actual explanation for why the scientific community rejects intelligent design is simple and mundane. More that two decades after the idea was first proposed, intelligent design advocates still have not done a single experiment or have even a research program to do any.

Next: What if Einstein causality has to be abandoned?

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