He's Back!

By Mark Trodden | March 26, 2006 7:34 pm

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and Society
  • Frumious B.

    neither can we fully explain the workings of aspirin, acupuncture or high temperature superconductivity.

    oh good grief. Aspirin works via prostaglandin inhibition, there was a Nobel prize given for the work. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to visit the Nobel website and find out who and what year because, frankly, I am tired of having to explain this. It’s a sure sign that someone is a crank when they trot out the tired old “We don’t know how aspirin works” argument. Funny, acupuncturists use it a lot. We high Tc superconductor physicists have no need to make such rediculous statements b/c our phenomenon can be reliably observed by anyone with a Nitrogen dewar, anywhere, at anytime.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Yeah, I thought people would like that quote.

  • Bob

    I am not a professional. I am an amateur astronomer whose has brushed alongside enough people in particle physics over the years to become rather confused by Fleischmann’s approach. I am under the impression that people in particle physics are not supposed to go to the press claiming anything until 99.999% of one billion events have recorded predicted results. Why is the press even bothering with listening to such nonsense?

  • Cygnus

    @Bob: I’m not sure what you mean by not supposed to(and in things like neutrino mass oscillations you can’t even dream of a billion events), but anyway it’s part of general scientific integrity to accept it if your claims are not independantly repeatable/verified anywhere else. It’s just a matter of responsibilty to not create an undue hue and cry until you are relatively sure enough.

    As for scientists actively promoting fraud/decieving the public, I don’t think there is any way you can stop that until you have a well enough educated and discerning public which doesn’t believe anything “the experts” say.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    A couple of things:

    1. You’re not supposed to (as in: good scientific practise) talk to the press before a journal has refereed your paper describing your discovery. But with really big results people tend to get the press in at earliest possible moment.

    2. There is a very interesting study into the cold fusion debacle in a book called “the Golem; what everyone should know about science” by Collins and Pinch. Despite its title, this is actually a proper scholarly work, and if you don’t like a sociological approach to scientific practise, this might not be for you. In particular, it bursts the bubble that scientists approach their work and that of their rivals open-minded and with complete scientific honesty.

    3. I saw an interview with Stanley Pons in a BBC documentary last year (probably a Horizon episode on fusion): The guy is completely destroyed by the affair.

    4. There is nothing wrong with being wrong, as long as you are wrong in an interesting way.

  • Gavin Polhemus

    I wouldn’t be too hard on Dr. Fleischmann until he actually shows some sign of support for this project. D2Fusion’s press release and website are full of misleading statements about everything from basic physics to government interest. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that their suggestion that Dr. Fleischmann is on board are also misleading.

    One professor I know was asked to be a “scientific advisor” for a similar venture during the initial excitement about cold fusion. “But cold fusion doesn’t work,” he told them. Their response was, “we don’t care,” and they offered him quite a bit of money. He declined.

    Dr. Fleischmann could have received a similar offer, and Dr. Fleischmann might be in a little more need of the money that my professor friend. Note that Dr. Fleischmann isn’t even quoted in the press release, and is only claimed to have agreed to be an advisor; he isn’t actually signed up yet. This could simply mean that he said, “I’ll advise you alright. You guys are FoS, and I should know! Now let me tell you where to send that check.”

    The people who are actually participating in the project (which may include Dr. Fleischmann, I just don’t know) deserve every bit of scorn you heaped on them.


  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Gavin, good one! trying to find the reality behind the veil of appearances.

  • anonymous

    For the record, Pons and Fleischmann are not remotely particle physicists. They are chemists by training.

  • Pingback: Chatquah and Galoshes » links for 2006-03-27()

  • robert

    One should always learn from one’s mistakes, though it is so much easier to learn from those of others. Cold fusion was a rather tragic episode, especially as it hit the streets at almost the same time as High Tc superconductivity. For a time the coffee room concensus was that they might both be rubbish (Monday, WD and FD), or that each represented a paradigm shift ( Tuesday ThD and over the weekend). It was a brave spectator scientist who dared to differentiate between the two, and about half of the few that did got it wrong. Nobelists (Schwinger and Lamb) and other men of standing (Dr. Strangelove) hit the printed page, and took CF quite seriously. Of course high Tc picked up a Nobel prize; CF was flushed away in a tide of Schadenfreude; Schwinger fell out with the APS because their referees suddenly started to treat him like a child. We all know that the moneymen are rascals and we all want to make a really cool discovery. So we should let it lie, and have a bit of sympathy for those for whom living the dream turned into a nightmare.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    One should indeed have such sympthy Robert – I agree. However, it runs a little thin when one then lends one’s name to a scam like this.

  • Sean C.

    For the record, there have been double-blind studies confirming the efficacy of some forms of TCM acupuncture. (asking more than that is unreasonable; saying ‘prove acupuncture works!’ is like saying ‘prove surgery works!’)

    And there’s also the Westernized version practiced in virtually every physiotherapy clinic on the continent.

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    Speaking of weird theories trying to get cash out of investors and the government, some might be interested in this, a company which claims to be able to generate electricity by forcing a transition between the standard 13.6 eV level of a hydrogen atom to a supposed “lower” energy level called the Hydrino (warning: wikipedia article is a bit frustrating). Anyway, it’s bizarre, insane, and somehow, really captivating to read this guy’s nonsense about how all 20th century physics is “wrong”

  • robert

    Caveat emptor

  • Frumious B.

    For the record, there have been double-blind studies confirming the efficacy of some forms of TCM acupuncture.

    There have been a whole lot more showing that it doesn’t. Generally the studies which show an effect are small and poorly run. As sample sizes get larger and experiment design improves, the signal goes away. The only conditions which repeatably show a positive effect from acupuncture are highly suggestable conditons such as pain and nausea, which suggests a placebo mechanism.

    (asking more than that is unreasonable; saying ‘prove acupuncture works!’ is like saying ‘prove surgery works!’)

    Nonsense. The hypothesis underlying the practice of acupuncture is a vitalistic in nature and does not acknowledge modern medical knowledge such as, say, germ theory. It makes very specific testable claims, none of which have panned out. No meridians have been found; no life force has been detected.

    Surgery, on the other hand, relies on the easily confirmed theory that there are bones and organs inside the human body which are somtimes indicated for a physical change.

    And there’s also the Westernized version practiced in virtually every physiotherapy clinic on the continent.

    Define Westernized version. And what of it?

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Frumious B, can you give references to those studies? Otherwise it is just “he says, she says”…

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Dr. Fleischmann should focus on the alternative medicines market. There is a big market for drugs that don’t work. Most vitamine supplements don’t work. Most homeopathic drugs don’t work.

    So, why not sell pills containing trace amounts of palladium that will cause fusion reactions in the body and kill harmful bacteria. :)

  • Frumious B.

    Well, PK, just how much time do you have? And how much hijacking of threads on someone else’s blog do you want me to do? I learn about a new acupunture study probably every other week.

    Why don’t you start here.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    See, that wasn’t so hard…

  • Cynthia

    Really now, is not cold fusion beating a dead horse? As modern society becomes increasingly anxious about the dire circumstances surrounding the dwindling fossil fuel supply, false claims regarding viable alternatives to fossill fuels – such as cold fusion – will continue to be broadcasted by the media/Wallstreet with glowing expressions of optimism. As long as the media gives economist – with a “myopia to science” – biased airtime proclaiming that the all mighty God of Capitalism will come to our rescue showering us with a bounty of alterative fuel products, society will continue to be lulled into complacency regarding this most pressing issue facing civilization. As long as economist with “marketplace mantras” continue to shape the public mindset, the public will continue to embrace this blind faith in laissez-faire. These economists, in effect, argue that the free market is the most efficient vehicle to use in order to tackle the world’s fuel conundrum. In turn, the gullible consumer will become deceived into buying these “pie-in-the-sky” alteratives to fossil fuels. Unless a significant breakthrough in scientific discovery emerges capable of harnessing Maxwell Demons to outwit thermodynamics, I will continue to remain skeptical of any magic bullets which are capable of substantially offsetting our hunger for hydrocarbons. In close, our consumer-driven society needs to wake-up to the following stark reality: the natural laws of thermodynamics continue to usurp the economic principles of supply and demand. Now I will descend from my soapbox.


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Cosmic Variance

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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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