If you’re a physicist, and most likely even if you’re not, you will remember the cold fusion debacle of 1989. Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, working at the University of Utah, claimed to have achieved successful nuclear fusion – in this case the fusion of two Deuterium nuclei – at room temperature, thereby suggesting the promise of abundant cheap energy.
There were always theoretical problems with the idea that this experiment could work but, of course, what matters is what repeatable experiments tell you, not what theorists can explain. However, it became clear rather quickly that independent researchers could not consistently repeat Pons and Fleischmann’s results. In fact, before too long, the physics community reached a consensus, through repeated experimentation, that cold fusion had not been observed.
Although there was some short-term hype from the University of Utah, and an international discussion and controversy about the results, I think that how the cold fusion issue played out is a real success for science. The correct result was arrived at in the right way, independently of the reputations and personalities of the investigators and the interests of their institutions.
This doesn’t mean that everyone accepted the result, and there has remained a tiny band of people who, some for dishonest, financial reasons and some for reasons that are beyond me, insist that the Pons and Fleischmann result was real.
If you’d like the whole sordid story, then the entire episode is detailed and critically discussed by Bob Park in his wonderful book Voodoo Science: the Road from Foolishness to Fraud, which is devoted to describing how and trying to understand why scientific fraud occurs. Park is a hero of mine, and I relish the sense of relief and common cause that accompanies the arrival in my email inbox of his sharp, reasoned, funny and sarcastic newsletter – What’s New – every Friday afternoon.
I’m bringing up this somewhat old story because of a company I stumbled across via a piece on Slashdot Science. We all know that there are numerous dodgy investment deals out there, promising impressive returns from the use of questionable or plainly fraudulent scientific claims. So it is presumably little surprise to most people that there exists a company – D2Fusion – that is attempting to cash in, all these years later, on the discredited idea of cold fusion.
What made this story more interesting and disappointing to me is the piece of news that put them on Slashdot Science’s radar, with headline
He’s Back! Cold Fusion Pioneer Dr. Martin Fleischmann Joins D2Fusion Engineering Team to Deliver Long Awaited Energy Devices to the World
While it is fine (although sometimes personally somewhat embarassing) to come up with a theoretical idea or experimental result which is ultimately shown to be wrong, it is certainly not reasonable to insist, after multiple definitive tests, that everyone else is wrong and that your one result must be correct. Nevertheless, here is Fleischmann helping taking his discredited physics ideas public.
The press release is littered with the kind of hype that one would expect to be used to gloss over the fact that the basic physics behind this technology has been clearly shown to be wrong. Perhaps my favorite bit is
D2Fusion CEO Russ George notes, …
“True, our theoretical grasp of all the processes in play remains imperfect, but neither can we fully explain the workings of aspirin, acupuncture or high temperature superconductivity. Unresolved questions about their mechanisms have not stopped us from enjoying their respective benefits, which are pale indeed compared to what solid state fusion offers. We are now certain that heat generation from this process is copious, safe, inexpensive and reproducible, and in terms of commercialization that seems like a perfect place to start.”
Except that there are multiple, repeatable experiments confirming the efficacy of aspirin (and comparing to acupuncture isn’t helping your case pal!).
If you read all the way to the end, then you’ll see the important part of the text, which probably accompanies all announcements of new companies using emerging technologies
A number of assertions in this press release may be considered to be forward-looking statements made pursuant to the safe harbor provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Act of 1995. These forward-looking statements involve a number of risks and uncertainties, including timely development, and market acceptance of products and technologies, competitive market conditions, and the ability to secure additional sources of financing. The actual results Solar Energy Limited may achieve could differ materially from any forward-looking statements due to such risks and uncertainties.
However, in this case all one needs is to look backwards to see whether the actual results will or will not differ materially from the statements in the press release.