54) What do critics say about cold fusion?


Ludwik Kowalski, <kowalskiL@mail.montclair.edu>
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, N.J. 07043, (4/18/03)

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In an attempt to be “objective” I decided to read and review a recent book written by a strong opponent of cold fusion, Robert Park. The title of the book is “Voodoo Science; the Road from Foolishness to Fraud” (Oxford University Press, New York, 2000). In one way this book is similar to a Russian book, “The Highwaymen of Science” written by Edward Kruglijakov (Nauka, Moscow, 2001). In both cases criticism of cold fusion is mixed with criticism of fraudulent “science,” such as astrology, homeopathy shamanism and antigravity machines. Referring to these areas Park writes that the claims “are totally, indisputably, extravagantly, wrong, but nevertheless attract a large following of passionate, and sometimes powerful, proponents.” Kruglijakov’s book is full of similar pronouncements. In one place he writes: “How can all this be explained? Why is it that poorly educated con artists can influence the thinking of so many? There are many causes. General social upheaval and the ideological vacuum created by the abolition of old ideas led to a situation in which tired, disillusioned individuals started to believe in miracles.”

It is remarkable that both authors belong to scientific establishments. Park directs the Office of Public Affairs of American Physical Society. Kruglijakov heads the Russian Academy of Sciences Committee created “to “fight pseudo-science and fraud in scientific research.” The authors are highly educated scientists; I would expect them to be familiar with serious cold fusion publications, such as those summarized on my list <http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/cf/>. But their criticism totally ignores recent findings and focuses on “easy targets,” such as Joseph Newman or Dennis Lee. Both books expose fraud and scientific ignorance very well but their characterization of cold fusion is not correct. Many practitioners of cold fusion research are serious scientists and the field should be described in terms of recent findings, not in terms of mistakes made more than ten years ago. The cold fusion scientists who I met recently are very critical of unjustified claims and deplorable public relation practices. All of them agree that the initial announcement of the discovery was premature.

In one place Kruglijakov does refer to the findings of Karabut (see “Russian Connection” on my list). But instead of summarizing the results, and arguing against them, he simply disqualifies the data and calls them ridiculous “miracles.” The author probably thinks that experimental findings inconsistent with current paradigms cannot possibly be accepted. Likewise, according to Park, cold fusion is a discredited claim that “may have little or no scientific support.” I strongly disagree with Park’s claim that “cold fusion is no closer to being proven than it was the day it was announced.” Let me focus on this pronouncement. The situation in 1989 was summarized, for example, in the highly critical ERAB report. From a purely scientific point of view the main objections were:
1) Absence of reaction byproducts “commensurable” with the amount of excess heat.
2) Irreproducibility of “excess heat” experiments.
3) Absence of theoretical explanations

How can the work of Arrata and Zhang (published in 1997) be ignored when addressing the issue of byproducts? These authors demonstrated (in six reproducible experiments) that the amount of helium produced is commensurable with the expected energy of 24 MeV per event. Do the critics think that data reported by the Japanese are in error? Do they think the data are fraudulent? The same question can be asked about findings of Karabut et. al., about work of Mizuno et al. etc. etc. All these researchers are recognized experts (with the highest possible degrees); I don’t believe they are charlatans or con artists.

It is true that experiments are still not 100% reproducible, but the situation is no longer as bad as it was in 1989 or 1990. According to Storms, much progress has been made in recognizing causes of irreproducibility. It should be clear that the lack of reproducibility can mean at least two things. Those who perform experiments may not be sufficiently qualified (not be familiar with significant nuances known to other scientists). Some influencing, but still unknown, factors are not under control of experimentalists. To illustrate this second point let me refer to electrostatic experiments. Every physics teacher knows that they are often “irreproducible.” Today we say that the outcome of a demonstration depends on humidity but early investigators were not always aware of this. They probably believed that frictional electricity experiments were irreproducible. Why should irreproducibility be associated with “not being real”? It should be associated with “we are not aware of some important factors.”

Let me illustrate this with something I personally experienced. Several weeks ago. I was heating milk in a microwave oven for two minutes. Then I removed the cup and inserted a cold spoon into it. At that moment I observed sudden “explosive boiling;” a clear indication that superheated milk was created. I tried to reproduce this event next day, and several days later. I used the same oven, the same cup, the same amount of milk, etc. but without success. Does it mean that my observation was not real? I do not think so. It only means that some important factors, perhaps the air temperature or pressure were different in subsequent experiments. Or perhaps the rate and angle at which the spoon was inserted into the cup were not exactly the same. After reading about hundreds of successful experiments in the area of cold fusion I am convinced that, unless all authors are liars, the reported phenomena were real. Cold fusion phenomena seem to depend on factors which are hard to identify, as indicated by Edmund Storms (see items 50 on my list).

I am not a theorist but I have read about several attempts to understand cold fusion, including the work of Nobel laureate J. Schwinger. Some researchers have emphasized the role of collective behavior in solid materials, as in the Mosbauer effect; others think that neutrons trapped in solids play an important role. It is true that these attempts have not produced a generally accepted theory, and that such a theory is needed to guide experimentalists. But its absence is not a valid argument against experimental findings. The entire field of cold fusion is still at the fact-gathering stage, a stage at which electromagnetism was before Faraday and Maxwell. Let me refer to a wise observation by Stanislaw Szpak and Pamela Mosier-Boss: “theory guides -- experiment decides.” This is a preferable approach in the area of cold fusion. Rejecting scientific data that do not agree with the current paradigm is not scientific.


P.S.

What follows is an email message I received recently:

Dear Mr. Kowalski,
Help! My name is XXX XXXXX and I am a sophomore at XXXXX High School.  In my chemistry class, I am doing a project on Cold Fusion.  I was looking on the Internet for websites on Cold Fusion, and I came across your links to your Cold Fusion items.  I was wondering if you could give me some advice or information?  I would like to know what Cold Fusion is, [and] how Cold Fusion was started. . . . .

I am no longer comfortable saying that “cold fusion is voodoo-science.” I am a physics teacher; how should I answer questions about cold fusion?

Can a nuclear process be triggered by a chemical process? The answer, based on what we know about nuclear phenomena, is negative. On the other hand many experiments seem to indicate the opposite. These experiments were performed many years after the first evaluation of “cold fusion” was made by our Department of Energy. As a teacher I would very much appreciate a second evaluation of the field by a panel of competent investigators. What can one do to make this happen?

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