12) Physics Teachers Talking about CF
Ludwik Kowalski, <kowalskiL@mail.montclair.edu>
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, N.J. 07043
Return to the clickable list of items
Physics teachers on the Internet list Phys-L, often discus controversial topics and Cold Fusion was not an exception. Prompted by a reply to my recent message (12/10/02) I went to the list archive at:
and started searching for "cold fusion." This produced more than one hundred hits. Unable to read so many old messages I randomly selected some. Let me show them here; they are quite interesting. The names of authors are not shown; authors are identified as teachers. The first message below was a reply to my call for comments about cold fusion. It is followed is my response and then by messages from the archive.
Teacher 1 (12/10/02)
The topic of cold fusion is most interesting but I'm surprised that it is still a topic of current interest on this list-server. I recall that someone reported that cold fusion had been achieved a few years ago but no one has been able to reproduce the effect to this date. However, I thought that most scientists now agree that cold fusion can never be achieved. Is there any new evidence to the contrary ..... or is it like the alchemists who spent many fruitless decades trying to turn lead into gold?
Teacher 2 (12/10/02)
I think there exists new evidence for three things:
1) Excess heat is now reproducible, and not only via electrolytic loading. In using electrolytic loading one must be aware that success depends on many factors not known ten years ago.
2) Unusual nuclear processes (emission of nuclear particles and radiation) have been observed in metallic crystals, such as palladium, heavily loaded with D2.
3) These puzzling processes do not resemble nuclear fusion taking place in high temperature plasma. The ratio of tritons over neutrons, for example, is highly skewed (by many orders of magnitude) in favor of charged particles. Another dramatic difference is that the reported production of 4He is not associated with the emission of 23.8 MeV photons. For more details see my short essays posted at:
and, above all, references which are quoted in my essays. I am only an outsider who tries to learn from experts. It would be desirable if a new panel of experts (physicists, chemists and material scientists) were created by our scientific establishment to evaluate the validity of recent findings and claims. I do not want to be like those who refused to look at what Galileo was showing because, according to Aristotle, such things were not possible. Yes, cold fusion announced in March of 1989 may turn out to be nothing but self-deception or even, in some cases, fraud. But I would like to hear a statement of that nature from honest experts. The first "official" pronouncement (November 1989) should be revised to account for research done since 1990. That is what I think.
Teacher 3 (8/2/02)
When challenging the "laws" of physics there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it. (The same applies to any other activity.)
A1) The rules need changing, and the scientific community handles it well.
A2) The rules don't need changing, and it is handled well. Example: The null
results of Eötvös.
B1) The rules need changing, and it is handled poorly.
B2) The rules don't need changing, and it is handled poorly. Examples:
N-rays, cold fusion.
And there is a fifth class, where the scientific community responds scientifically but fails to bring the broader society along. Examples: copper bracelet therapy, magnetic bracelet therapy, homeopathic medicines. The task of challenging established ideas is not assigned only to giants like Michelson and Rumford and Rutherford, but also to every worker-bee in the scientific community. To summarize:
-- Primarily we should discuss the right way to challenge the
established rules. And the necessity for doing so.
-- Secondarily we should discuss N-rays, cold fusion, homeopathy, etc.
as counterexamples, as perversions. We shouldn't call them "positive".
Teacher 2 (12/16/02)
> I am (in general) a rabid anti-conspiracy nut. This promise for
> Cold Fusion is SUCH an attractive possibility that MANY labs
> will immediately jump into the arena as soon as it is established.
> A FEW brave souls will (as we speak) be doing their damnedest
> to get positive results and be among first on the bandwagon. ...
But cold fusion is far from being able to convince others that it is "an attractive possibility." At an early stage a field of science is vulnerable to many things. It has been bastardized prematurely, I think. Whose fault was it? Mostly of those who announced the discovery, and of those who tried to control the discovery by political means. Was it a conspiracy? I do not think so. It just happened this way, unfortunately. I small initial perturbation created a lot of unexpected consequences.
Teacher 4 (7/1/1998)
Teacher 2 makes an important point. The skepticism about "cold fusion" arises not because of any "conspiracy" on the part of "orthodox" science, but rather because literally hundreds of competent scientists have attempted to reproduce the effect without success. The nuclear reactions associated with fusion are well understood, and have well known signatures (reaction products such as neutrons and gamma rays). These have been looked for with the most sensitive of detectors, and have not been found. Since fusion is a nuclear process, it is these nuclear reaction products that carry away the excess energy. If you don't have any nuclear reaction products, then it can't be a fusion reaction that is taking place in these "cold fusion" cells. Rather than taking someone's word for it (even if that someone happens to be Clarke or Schwinger), I prefer to base my own judgments about "cold fusion" on the evidence. And right now the evidence for "cold fusion" is pretty meager, while the evidence against it is pretty strong, at least IMHO.
Teacher 5 (7/1/1998)
I believe that it is nigh-impossible to change people's opinions regarding "Cold Fusion," so I usually am not tempted to dive in and argue about it. When any reversal of opinion requires the losing of face, then reversals of opinion cannot occur in public. Therefore why even try? If "CF" is eventually shown to be valid, then everyone will leap on the bandwagon, but there will be no detailed investigations of the ones who spent years ridiculing the topic. "Who, me? I was always a supporter!" It sure is easy to be on the side that's winning? I hope that I myself, years from now when CF is shown to be entirely bogus, will still have the stomach to read all these old archive files and see what led me into my shameful pro-CF beliefs. I probably won't though. I'm just as human as anyone.
> Isn't this the standard scenario of pathological science? Wild enthusiasm,
> followed by belated skepticism when the confirming experiments don't work,
> followed by increasing paranoia on the part of the original discoverers,
> whereupon the whole thing goes underground and survives on rumors and
> conspiracy theories.
Yes, it suggests that pathological science is a distinct possibility. However, we cannot argue that, since the above symptoms exist, THEREFORE it must be pathological science. There are other alternatives, so the conclusion does not follow. But since pathological science is a possibility, we should be wary and not immediately adopt solid beliefs regarding the reality of LENR (low energy nuclear reaction) phenomena.
> The excuse that they won't make it publish for fear of ostracism just
> doesn't wash. If it really works, and they can demonstrate it conclusively
> (the real thorn in the ointment is that word--conclusively)
Not necessarily. If it really works, yet is a feeble and hard-to-initiate effect, and if it goes against solid theory, then it becomes incredibly difficult to convince anyone that it exists. Rather, the effect itself will be judged to be impossible, and this fact will be used to judge the reliability of researchers: anyone who sees evidence in support of CF is in incompetent researcher (and knowing the reception they will receive if they noise it around that they've seen such things, the they are probably stupid.) If CF papers are constantly rejected by journal editors, and finally some separate CF-only peer review journals come into being, then researchers simply publish their works there. Those who wish, can subscribe. Those who know that CF is a waste of time need never see a paper about it.
> they, and Pons & Fleishmann, will be wealthy beyond their wildest dreams,
> and then couldn't care less about what the scientific community thinks.
Hardly. Only if CF was easily converted from a laboratory curiosity into a major new energy source would wealth and fame be automatic. The researchers who successfully replicate the CF phenomena have had no luck in making the effects reliable, or increasing their scale. (The people at CETI were claiming various successes, but they are a business, and they keep their developments behind a cloak
of secrecy.) The CF effects seem to be critically dependent on microscopic surface processes which nobody understands well. If it was easy, we wouldn't be having this discussion, and "CF" would have been immediately industrialized. That it was not, is evidence either that is doesn't exist, or that it always was a feeble, flaky, poorly-understood effect. In addition, if it is an effect which attracts the wrath of those who dislike the idea that theory-violating anomalies exist, then it is little wonder that the CF field is just where it is today. "Extraordinary phenomena require extraordinary evidence". In other words, we raise the bar for results which go against theoretical expectations, and lower the bar for results which validate known theory.
> In fact, if they did demonstrate it conclusively, and could
> give a rational scientific explanation of what they did, the
> scientific community would embrace them with open arms.
They have no rational explanation. There are many competing theories, but none mesh easily with known physics. I expect that we will see CF-based commercial products long before anyone figures out how the process works. If Pons and Fleischmann are ever embraced by science, it will be after they are safely dead and are unable to remind everyone of the suppression and ridicule which took place.
> Not only would they celebrate one of their own, but these people
> would be the saviors of scientific research, because everybody would
> be eager to fund all kinds of research, hoping to find more of these
> breakthroughs. If you believe all this is going to happen, or that it has
> already happened but is being kept secret for fear of ridicule, they I
> have a bridge up in Brooklyn, that I would like to interest you in
> next time I'm in your neighborhood.
Not kept secret for fear of ridicule exactly. Papers are rejected after peer review, and if most peers have an attitude of "I won't believe it unless you show me incontrovertible proof", then no papers will be published. Do most research findings require incontrovertible proof? What about the common wry assertion that 90% of the papers found in journals will be shown to be wrong? There is a bias against CF, the barriers have been artificially raised against it.
Now, popular articles with a pro-CF slant, that is another story. Of course editors are fearful to publish such things. Look at the reaction towards them just in this group! Who has the bravery to stand up to that sort of critical response? Few people, if their jobs depend on it. I'm safe, people can attack me all they want and it only damages my ego, not my career or family's income. Actually, it is more than likely that the editor of a magazine already is hostile to CF, and so the fear is on the part of the writers. As a professional science writer, do I dare to damage my reputation by reviewing the latest ICCF conference, or by even mentioning that such conferences are still taking place? I certainly would think twice. Probably much more than twice.
> I believe that Pons & Fleischmann most recently took their operation to the
> French Riviera, where they were working in a lab funded primarily by Sony
> (actually, not a bad investment for them--they put up what is for them
> petty cash for a few years and if it does pan out they are huge winners. If
> it doesn't, they have lost nothing of consequence to them). But I recently
> heard that Sony had cut off their support. Can anyone confirm or clarify
> this information?
I think the lab is no more. I know that Dr. Fleischmann had retired awhile back. They were unable to take their results much beyond the hard-to-replicate "laboratory curiosity" stage they initially started with.
Teacher 6 (9/20/1999):
I enter this discussion with great fear, but I can't help getting this out of my system. (1) Can we agree that there can be a small amount of muon induced fusion in a tabletop experiment, but not enough to make significant temperature changes? (2) Can we agree that the other types of cold fusion that are being discussed require us to violate Coulomb's Law and therefore are unlikely to occur?
Teacher 7 (9/21/1999):
First of all, just because someone says 'a new result is only accepted if there is at least a plausibility argument advanced to support it' doesn't make it so. You don't have to look any further back than the announcement of high-Tc superconductors to see that such is not the case. When the announcement was made, no one had any theoretical explanation for how it could happen. The BCS theory only applies in metals with free electrons that can be paired up, not in ceramic insulators. But, the claim was made that these ceramics could be made superconducting at much higher temperature than the highest known metallic superconductor. What was the reaction of the physics community? Not to say, 'Oh that doesn't fit our neat BCS theory, so it must be wrong.' No, it wasn't that at all. Large numbers of groups rushed to their labs to try it out to see for themselves if it worked. And, lo and behold, it did work! To this day, as far as I know, there is no satisfactory explanation of the effect. Even John Bardeen himself was unable to come up with an explanation. But it works, and the alloy combination has been modified to tweak the temperature up to nearly 100 K. I expect that some day someone will hit on a way to explain the effect, but the lack of a theory has certainly not been a restraint on people utilizing the effect. There are commercially available kits to demonstrate high-Tc superconductivity in probably every physics department in the country.
On the other hand, when CF was announced, hundreds, literally, of groups went to their labs to try and replicate the effect. Unfortunately, not enough information was given in the press conference to know all the conditions that were used. One group, at Ohio State, wore out a video tape they had obtained of the press conference, looking at the apparatus, comparing the size of the hands in the pictures, etc. Many meetings and conferences were held, the hundreds of groups reported mostly negative results, while a few reported sporadic positive results. These were hailed as having done it right, the others as having done it wrong. The bottom line, for me at least, is that no prototype energy producing device has been forthcoming. In other words, there still is no water heater.
There is a lesson in the CF business. One should not let dollar signs cloud your ability to be objective about your work. And be sure you have your ducks all in a row before you start shooting. P&F gave their first scientific paper on CF at a chemical society meeting in Dallas, (not even to a bunch of physicists) and were asked the two most obvious questions: 1) have you integrated the power input to the cells over the duration of the experiment to be sure you have net excess energy (they had not), and 2) what happens when you do the experiment with ordinary hydrogen (that experiment was only in process, and seemed to give the same effect, so they weren't going to talk about it). Eventually they blamed physicists for being severe critics, but it started with chemists. Carl Sagan said something that I think has been quoted on the list before: "I believe that the extraordinary should be pursued. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." I hope cold fusion does pan out some day. But you really can't blame people who have tried it and found nothing for being skeptical. And it is not just a matter of dismissing it out of hand because there is no theory to back it up.
Teacher 8: (9/19/99):
> This is a valid problem: Conflict of Interest in those who render
>judgment upon a new discovery. "Don't put the foxes in charge of the
>chicken coop." Who should judge whether CF is valid? Most hot-fusion
>professionals are in danger of emotional bias. Scientists are human, so
>they'd better not go around declaring that they can control their biases.
>If the CF phenomenon is genuine, then it means that the staggering amounts
>of money put into Tokamak-style fusion might have been wasted. It means
>that hundreds of people devoted their careers to a technology which might
>prove of little worth should electrochemical-fusion result in efficient
>reactors. Obviously the pressures on such people would be tremendous.
>They would have to be literal *saints* to not be affected by it. If they
>are normal, non-saintly humans, then they would be in danger of succumbing
>to tricks of their subconscious, such as conveniently finding strange
>justification and weak excuses to dismiss CF as unreal, and they would not
>even know that they were doing this. It would seem perfectly sensible at
>the time, yet future historians would see something entirely different.
And likewise for the CF proponents. What they lack in time and money expended they make up for with pride and the desire to retain professional respect in a field marred almost from the get-go. The earliest proponents of CF were the worst of all possible foxes in charge of the chicken coop. Everyone since has labored under this cloud and they are mostly in the unenviable position of "put up or shut up," a virtual death sentence of many things science in today's research atmosphere.
>In all my reading of CF literature, I've not encountered any "conspiracy
>theory" stuff. In the "perpetual motion" and "antigravity" crackpot
>fields the situation is far different. There it's rare to find a
>researcher who DOESN'T accuse government or industry (or Space Aliens!) of
>suppressing the research. When the crackpots start discussing
>antigravity, it's an effective (though dishonest) tactic to bring up
>conspiracies. The crackpots will launch into paranoid tirades and destroy
>their own credibility.
>But try the same with Cold Fusion people, and it is not *their*
>credibility which comes into question. Cold Fusion requires serious
>brainpower and facilities before any research can be done. Cold Fusion
>supporters are professional physicists and engineers, not weak-minded
>basement inventors who, once disparaged, will STAY disparaged.
With the possible exception of the two that put it on the map: While Pons' "partner in crime" has perhaps gotten some unfair coverage, Pons himself was the original apparently-respected researcher who could not sort out conflict of interest, who could not stand the thought of being corrected (much less being wrong) and who could not stand up to the political machine that took over. Had CF followed the path set out by Jones, it would not be where it is today. This statement is one of those double-meaning statements recently discussed in the "recommendations" thread. If Jones had his way, there would not be much promise of virtually unlimited "table-top" energy. It is clear that Jones did not have his way, and yet there is still not much promise of virtually unlimited "table-top" energy. Given this outcome, it seems that an original approach of slow methodical unheralded peer-reviewed research would have been better for the entire CF field.
>...perhaps CF truly is bogus, and the outcast status of the "CF research
>community" is entirely proper. I myself look at the evidence and decide
>that CF has about a 95% chance of being real. Does that make me a
>"believer"? Of course not. A "believer" believes, and evidence be
>damned. Just as disbelievers disbelieve, and evidence be damned.
To paraphrase, I myself look at the evidence and decide that CF has about a 5% chance (or less) of being real. Does that make me a "disbeliever"? Of course not. A "disbeliever" disbelieves, and evidence be damned. Just as believers believe, and evidence be damned. Although I previously stated that I am a "disbeliever," this was merely to draw a comparison.
Rather, I am extremely skeptical. I was a graduate student in solid state physics at the University of Utah when the story broke, and I was acquainted with several behind-the-scenes people involved (though not PF) in the early days, including Salamon and others. I also had the luxury of just sitting back and observing what was happening. Not long after, I was fortunate enough to be able to witness seminars given by Jones at the University of Utah, only a short drive from his lair. And unfortunately, I and my peers were likely the first grad students on this planet subjected to quantum mechanics homework problems involving CF, from a professor who had been sitting in on telephone conferences and chalkboard discussions literally in the first hours of the story. No more going to look the answers up! :-(
As it did then, the community will ultimately decide the validity, interim and final. Truly. And those who have purposefully impeded the advance of science on both sides of the question will ultimately have their comeuppance. PF have already *rightly* had their comeuppance. Others have followed. Others will follow. And the rest will survive with reputations validated or revived.
Teacher 8 (9/22/99):
>First of all, just because someone like Teacher 8 says 'a new
>result is only accepted if there is at least a plausibility argument
>advanced to support it' doesn't make it so. You don't have to look
>any further back than the announcement of high-Tc superconductors to
>see that such is not the case.
It was not my intention to imply that nothing can proceed without at least a plausibility argument (if not more). My point, admittedly not well presented, was that experimental results, in order to be peer-reviewed published, generally require more than a vacuum of discussion. If nothing else, such results, to be published, at least require a discussion of how or why current theory might be inadequate to explain the results, if that appears to be the case. Rondo further pointed out a crucial requirement in the particular case of anomalous result: that any published work of this nature, peer-reviewed or not, provide great and specific detail regarding the duplication of the measurement, so that everyone can literally rush to their labs to try it, with more to go on than the proverbial video tape. At times there exists an uneasy truce between theory and experiment. A comparison of the examples of high-Tc superconductors and cold fusion will probably make for interesting reading some day, in the annals of social studies.
Return to the clickable list of items