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Teachers debate cold fusion
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ, 07043
"Finally, there are the pure cranks, outsiders who can point to no positive
scientific achievements themselves but who believe that they have found defects
in some new doctrine such as Einstein's theory of relativity. One would think
there would be fewer of these as time goes on. But this is not so. Over the
years a large number of first-class physicists and mathematicians have thoroughly
investigated the theory of relativity and none has found fault with it. It is hard,
therefore, today to take seriously anyone who believes he has discovered a mistake.
I have frequently taken the trouble to uncover the errors in papers written by
cranks of this type, but never in all my experience has any of them admitted that
he had made a mistake, as Einstein did." Born's comments were written a long
time ago, but his words remain true today. There will always be a small but
hard-core group of intellectually dishonest "anti-relativists" who neither
What follows is a collection of messages about cold fusion from teachers. The messages were posted on the Internet discussion list, Phys-L, or were sent to me in private. They illustrate a wide range of opinion. PHYS-L is a list dedicated to learning and teaching physics with 700 subscribers from over 35 countries, the majority of whom are physics educators. To search in the archive of messages posted on Phys-L go to:
The topic of cold fusion is most interesting but I'm surprised that it is still a topic of current debate 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?
I think there exists new evidence for three things:
1) Anomalous heat is now more reproducible, and not only via electrolytic loading. It has been observed in a deuterium gas discharge tube with a palladium cathode, and in a vessel containing palladium and hot deuterium gas at high pressure. But success depends on factors which were not known when cold fusion was announced.
2) Unusual nuclear processes (transmutations, emission of nuclear particles and electromagnetic radiation) accompany generation of excess heat. This happens in electrolytic cells, in gas discharge tubes and in high pressure vessels.
3) These puzzling processes do not resemble familiar thermonuclear fusion taking place in very 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; the released energy appears as heat.
Most of us are not able to verify these findings. That is why I think that 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.
The whole atmosphere around CF has been filled with poisonous material, some valid and some emotional. One must be very careful, on entry into such an atmosphere, to be protected by a useful theoretical proposal or at least a plausible explanation that can be subjected to experimental tests. On the basic level there are two obvious questions:(1) How could hydrogen atoms fuse at such a low temperature? (2) If they do fuse, how is the energy released (if not in gamma rays, then how) i.e. what reaction occurred?
If one has no proposed answer or proposed experiment to get an answer, then one is in a state of massive weakness. Your message seems to be that there is new evidence for an interesting mystery, and the early workers were not fairly treated. The author of such a message will be classified as an apologist or defender, no matter how he qualifies such words. If, however, he has a plausible proposal, it could possibly be different. I infer that the major skepticism in the mainstream nuclear science community stems from the silence on the basic two questions above. Such skepticism seems to me to be justified until something reasonable is proposed or, better yet, demonstrated. Until then, essentially all responses will be "impurities or errors".
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 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".
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.
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!"
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?
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.
In 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.
One reviewer wrote: Professor Park does more than debunk, he crucifies... You'll never again waste time or your money on astrologers, quantum healers, spoon benders homeopaths, perpetual motion merchants, or alien-abduction fantasists. But isn't "cold fusion" different from the above? I suspect that Fleischmann and Pons might become Nobel laureates.
What makes the CF area different from voodoo science?
1) A large number (several hundred) of cooperating scientists in about 10 countries are involved.
2) Two Nobel laureates (Teller and Schwinger) were theorizing about AE at one time.
3) Nearly all of the AE researchers have doctorates; many of them are (or were) associated with highly prestigious laboratories and universities.
4) These researchers organize one international conference each year and make results of their findings known to all who are interested.
5) Their methodology of validation is not different from that practiced by so-called "mainstream" scientists.They experiment, they hypothesize, they change their minds, they publish.
6) They are not secretive; they want to be heard and be criticized scientifically.
7) They want to have access (as authors) to all mainstream journals in order to benefit from the peer-review process.
8) They want their proposals to be considered by NSF, DOE and other granting agencies.
9) They are highly unhappy about the "blacklisting of the entire field triggered by mistakes of those who tried to exploit the prematurely announced 1989 discovery.
Is it not obvious that claims made by astrologers, quantum healers, homeopaths, spoon benders, perpetual motion merchants, or alien-abduction fantasists are completely different from those made by AE scientists?
In science it's wrong to first adopt a viewpoint and then to use the selection of evidence in order to support that viewpoint. Politicians do it. The legal system is based on it. Science is totally different: a bend-over-backwards search for the truth rather than a defense of a an existing position during a debate. If one claims to be scientific, yet also adopts a position not based on evidence, then that is pseudoscience.
The cold fusion area is not voodoo science. But the phenomenon of pseudoscience is very real and society should be protected from those who exploit ignorance in order to benefit from unscientific claims. Selling healing bracelets is one example of this; the therapeutic effect of such gadgets, as far as I know, has not been validated. How can society be protected from con artists without confusing charlatans with honest scientists addressing non-conventional topics? This is a difficult issue.
I see CF as classic pathological science, as described by Langmuir. I cannot say for certain that CF isn't real. I suspect nobody can. But I would guess, based on the number of the characteristics of pathological science it has exhibited, the odds against it are pretty long.
It's not hard to destroy your career as a scientist. Simply take UFO sightings/evidence seriously and devote major time to investigating them. Or dedicate yourself to researching parapsychology. Pick any one of a number of "taboo" subjects such as Cold Fusion to study, and the greater scientific community will excommunicate you by closing off funding and the channels for publication.
It is very difficult to find a word to describe what it is that motivates the honorable person in his or her search for scientific truth. It is not exactly curiosity, which can be much more easily satisfied in the library. Feynman refers to the thrill of being the sole possessor of a secret of the universe for a few moments and, subsequently, revealing that secret to the world. There must be something involved in this feeling that comes from the ego, but that is not to say that the feeling should be disparaged.
The cold fusion situation in the USA can be characterized as a conflict between a group of scientists and the government (represented by DOE and NSF). This reminds me of two other conflicts of that nature; both in the former USSR. Soviet geneticists and Soviet cyberneticists were excommunicated on ideological basis rather than on the basis of scientific argumentation. These fields, labeled as reactionary science, were later rehabilitated. (But many voodoo scientists died in prisons and concentration camps before being rescued.)
What might skeptics say about recent cold fusion data?
1) Muzino and others in Japan are liars, like Karabut and others in Russia, like Bressani and others in Italy, like Lonchampt and others in France, like Bockris and others in the US. The data are fraudulent.
2) These people only pretend to be scientists. Their Ph.D. diplomas were counterfeit; their professorships at famous universities were bought; the books and hundreds of articles they published were produced by somebody else. They are members of an international mutual support society.
3) We already know everything about nuclear phenomena; facts which disagree with existing theories are not acceptable. Absence of commensurate amounts of neutrons and protons is a sufficient reason to ignore claims about unusual nuclear processes.
4) Cold fusion researchers were often wrong in 1989. Therefore what they are finding now must also be wrong. They should never be forgiven for announcing a discovery via a press release, or for claiming that excess heat experiments are very simple.
5) Claims made under the banner of cold fusion were not described in articles published in leading journals. Therefore they cannot be accepted. The editors of these journals refuse to publish cold fusion articles; they know better what is right and what is wrong.
6) Neither the Department of Energy nor the National Science Fundation supports research in the area of cold fusion. Therefore such research is not worth taking seriously.
7) Practical applications of cold fusion have not been demonstrated; therefore the underlying phenomena cannot be real.
8) We know nothing about recent cold fusion findings; therefore they must not be correct. The entire field was declared pseudoscientific in 1989 by a panel of experts. The opinion of experts must be respected; it can not be challenged by new findings.
9) Experiments should be 100% reproducible before they can be accepted.
Only the last reservation is sensible. Lack of reproducibility is a clear indication that some important parameters are still not under control by experimentalists, and that conclusions are tentative.
Teacher 24: (about anti-relativists):
The most basic problem with the "anti-relativists" is their intellectual dishonesty -- the refusal to think and recognize their errors no matter how many times, or in how many ways, such errors are clearly identified by those who actually understand. This sort of epistemological/psychological aberration is not anything new to relativity. In a 1922 letter to Max Born, Einstein incidentally mentions a "monumental blunder" he made "some time ago (my experiment on the emission of light with positive rays)." In his commentary on this letter, in the book "The Born-Einstein Letters," _Macmillan_, 1971, Born first mentions the "anti-relativists" who fail to learn from their mistakes as Einstein did. In one paragraph, Born notes:
"Finally, there are the pure cranks, outsiders who can point to no positive scientific achievements themselves but who believe that they have found defects in some new doctrine such as Einstein's theory of relativity. One would think there would be fewer of these as time goes on. But this is not so. Over the years a large number of first-class physicists and mathematicians have thoroughly investigated the theory of relativity and none has found fault with it. It is hard, therefore, today to take seriously anyone who believes he has discovered a mistake. I have frequently taken the trouble to uncover the errors in papers written by cranks of this type, but never in all my experience has any of them admitted that he had made a mistake, as Einstein did." Born's comments were written a long time ago, but his words remain true today. There will always be a small but hard-core group of intellectually dishonest "anti-relativists" who neither
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