One of Val Kilmer's less stellar roles was as Simon Templar in 1997's The Saint. Templar is a master thief and master of disguise who takes on assumed names associated with Catholic Saints. (Simon Templar was, apparently, the patron saint of magic.) Eventually, he's hired by a Russian industrialist (always evil characters) to steal a formula for cold fusion from a pretty young female scientist, thereby having access to the secret of heating millions of homes with a few gallons of water. This being Hollywood, he falls in love with her instead, and together they bring limitless energy to the world at large, using nothing but electrodes in a jar of heavy water. Ain't love grand?
The film's scientific premise is right up there with the presentation of sonoluminescence as a powerful energy source in Chain Reaction. The main difference is that sonoluminescence -- while nowhere near the stage of development depicted onscreen -- is nonetheless a well-respected, well-funded field of study, whereas cold fusion has pretty much languished along the edges of the lunatic fringe since its alleged "discovery" almost 20 years ago. It has a handful of supporters among scientists, but the field boasts a far greater number of crackpots who inevitably undermine the rare occasions when a bona fide result is obtained in such experiments. Prevailing opinion is that the vast majority of cold fusion research falls under the rubric of "pathological science": the results are always on the verge of a stunning validation, and whenever said validation fails (again) to materialize, there is always a handy rationale for why it isn't really a definitive failure.
As recently as 2000, TIME magazine listed cold fusion as one of the "worst ideas" of the 20th century. You' might never know that if your introduction to cold fusion was last week's short article in Wired by Mark Anderson, reporting on a recent small convocation of diehard cold fusion advocates. Chances are, you'd come away feeling that these plucky, anti-establishment rebel scientists are thisclose (as close as Kilmer and his co-star in the still shot at right, generating their own form of heat) to achieving a cheap, plentiful supply of energy based on simple high school chemistry -- if only that stodgy, closed-minded, mean scientific establishment would stop making fun of them and provide sufficient funding resources.
It's admittedly a compelling narrative -- everyone loves seeing an underdog prevail -- it just isn't true. The real story of cold fusion is every bit as fascinating and provocative, even tragic in places, but not nearly as black and white. It's less about scientific villainy, and more about all-too-human foibles. That's why there have been several full-length books written on the subject. Like a great deal of science, cold fusion doesn't lend itself to the broad strokes and sound bite syntax of most popular science reporting. That doesn't mean a reporter shouldn't try to temper the latest claims of cold fusion's stubborn proponents with some context gleaned from its checkered history.
I'm sympathetic to the challenge Anderson faced in writing the article, given his space limitations, but he doesn't seem to have done much due diligence about including any skeptical context, or even the obligatory opposing view. Everything he needed is readily available online, including original video footage of the infamous 1989 press conference that started it all, coverage in both the science trade press and mainstream media, and the full reports from the Department of Energy, which conducted official reviews in both 1989 and 2004. A quick online trip to Amazon would have yielded a couple of popular science books offering both pro (Eugene Mallove's Fire From Ice) and con (Gary Taubes' Bad Science: The Short Life and Weird Times of Cold Fusion) viewpoints. I'm not asking Anderson to include all of that, but can't we have just a little skepticism? Pretty please?
It's all the more distressing coming on the heels of a lengthy 2004 feature in Wired by Charles Platt that painted an even more unflattering portrait of the scientific establishment, describing its resistance to the notion of cold fusion as "a colossal conspiracy of denial," rather than professional scientists merely rejecting something due to lack of convincing empirical evidence. Clearly, Wired has picked the more simplistic, underdog "framing" narrative: cold fusion scientists have been deeply wronged by an overly skeptical entrenched "establishment," and any day now they will be vindicated and save the world with their revolutionary new energy source. Hollywood should love it.
(In fairness, the magazine's cold fusion coverage is still better than Popular Mechanics, which ran a
despicable piece of fear-mongering cover story in 2004 claiming that terrorists could use cold fusion to build their own hydrogen bombs. For an example of truly stellar reporting on the topic, see Sharon Weinberger's November 21, 2004, feature for The Washington Post, which is the most balanced and nuanced treatment of the cold fusion controversy I've yet read in the mainstream media outlets.)
Here's a bit of background for readers with only a passing familiarity with the controversy. Way back in 1989, two chemists at the University of Utah named Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann believed they had succeeded in producing nuclear fusion in a jar -- without the need to recreate the temperatures and pressures found in the centers of stars which run on "hot" fusion. We can achieve hot nuclear fusion, but it requires more energy than it gives back, so it's pretty much an energy sinkhole for the time being (although the physicists are working the problem, yes they are!). Anyway, their finding was counter to everything known to date about nuclear fusion, both in theory and experiment.
Generally, when there's a significant breakthrough in science, it's written up in a formal paper containing all the information needed for other scientists to replicate the experiment and test the results -- because reproducibility is one of the most fundamental elements of the scientific method. That paper is submitted to a reputable, peer-reviewed journal, and if enough reviewers give it a thumb's up, the paper is published, and other scientists can critique and/or build upon their work. The system is imperfect -- egos and rivalries can get in the way -- but over the long haul, it has served science well. It's an equally accepted maxim that the more potentially revolutionary the result, the greater the burden of proof: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence in order to be accepted by the scientific community. And cold fusion was a truly extraordinary claim.
Pons and Fleischmann, for whatever reason, ignored the established protocol and jumped right into the public domain, announcing their results in a March 23 press conference -- even as they were applying for patents for what they believed would become a hugely lucrative industry. Those pending patent applications were cited as the reason they couldn't reveal all the details of their experiment or provide appropriate documentation of their results -- which meant their results couldn't be tested and verified by other scientists. Basically, they wanted it both ways: they wanted scientific glory for their work, while hoarding the details in hopes of reaping a fortune in proprietary patent rights.
The Utah press release made the situation worse by indulging in unfortunate hyperbole, hailing the breakthrough as something that would provide "an inexhaustible source of energy." (Scientists are all too familiar with this tendency of academic media departments.) Now, anyone who's covered science as a reporter knows to be wary when such a claim is made: we're all for new and improved energy sources, but inexhaustible? Nature just doesn't work that way; it sounded more like that perennial bugbear, perpetual motion, rather than any kind of serious science. The New York Times was suitably cautious, and initially refused to run the story, but the Wall Street Journal's Jerry Bishop and his editors apparently just saw the dollar signs and published a euphoric front-page article on the breakthrough. Soon other major newspapers followed suit, and it was a media feeding frenzy.
Scientists -- especially physicists -- shared the Times' skepticism, in part because of the manner in which Pons and Fleischmann had made their announcement. "Conventional science requires you to play by certain rules," retired Los Alamos scientist turned underground cold fusion researcher Edmund Storms is quoted in the 2004 Wired feature as saying. "First, thou shalt not announce thy results via a press conference. Second, thou shalt not exaggerate the results. Third, thou shalt tell other scientists precisely what thou did. They broke all of those rules." The world may love a rebel, but the unwritten "rules" of scientific culture are in place for very good reasons -- and if you break them, it's best to have a damned good reason of your own for doing so, or at least killer experimental results with all the requisite documentation in hand for independent verification. Is it any wonder Pons and Fleischmann faced a rather cool reception?
Eventually they published a full-length (over 50 pages!) paper with all of the necessary details, but it was rushed, sloppy, and contained at least one egregious error concerning their analysis of the gamma ray spectra. This did not help strengthen their already shaky case. Still, they might have been grudgingly forgiven their poor scientific manners and initial awkward missteps if their work had been verified. Scientists love a good underdog story as much as anybody, and there's numerous examples in history of lone scientists with poor social skills laboring against the doubts of colleagues and dire financial straits to prove their pet theory. (And they win! Yay for science!)
The problem was, hundreds of researchers all over the world scurried to reproduce the experiments, and invariably failed. Sure, there were a couple of glimmers of hope here and there: teams at Texas A&M and the Georgia Institute of Technology excitedly reported results of excess heat and neutron production, respectively, in April, but withdrew those results almost immediately, citing "lack of evidence." By the end of 1989, a panel of experts had conducted a Department of Energy review of the matter, and concluded there was no basis for the claims. As far as mainstream science was concerned, that was the final nail in cold fusion's coffin.
But like a lot of pseudoscience -- to which it is frequently compared -- cold fusion refuses to die. It's tough not to admire the steely resolve of cold fusion advocates, who have faced derision, suffered in their careers, and labored to build their own scientific enterprise from scratch: their own meetings, their own journals, their own community. (Then again, there's a whiff of, "Fine! If we can't play in the big sandbox, we'll just go make our own!") Alas, those are ideal conditions for crackpots to flourish, so they've got some strange bedfellows, but they've also got a handful of otherwise respectable scientists conducting their own experiments in cold fusion. Pons and Fleischmann reportedly had a bitter falling out and parted ways in 1995. Fleischmann is still collaborating on cold fusion research in the UK, but Pons has become something of a recluse. The new dynamic duo of cold fusion is SRI International chemist Michael McKubre and MIT physicist Peter Hagelstein.
Gradually, the "serious" researchers started presenting papers at meetings other than their own, including those of the American Physical Society. Those researchers chipped away at the tarnished reputation of their chosen field, publishing peer-reviewed papers now and then on purported evidence of "low-energy nuclear reactions." Eventually, the DOE decided, in fairness, to take another look at the accumulated evidence over the last 15 years and re-evaluate the cold fusion controversy. This time, they relented just a little: they still didn't find the evidence sufficiently convincing to launch a federally-funded research program. The panel split on the issue of whether subsequent experiments had validated the occasional production of "excess heat," citing poor experimental design, documentation, background control, etc., as muddying their determinations. (Out of 18 members, 12 found no conclusive evidence, five found the evidence somewhat convincing, and only one was completely convinced.) But they felt that funding agencies should consider funding proposed projects on a case-by-case basis, provided those proposals "meet accepted scientific standards and undergo the rigors of peer review."
See? I told you it was a complicated story. That's why I'd normally be sympathetic to Wired's Anderson, faced with the task of conveying the salient points in a short news article. (There's no excuse for Pratt's fawning 2004 feature; is there anyone more zealous than a former skeptic turned convert?) Your average reporter doesn't have time to do exhaustive research on such a short news article, and frankly, your average reader doesn't want to wade through all the gory technical details. Nonetheless, Anderson could have tracked down at least one skeptical, yet fair-minded, source, to show he had some rudimentary grasp of the complexity of the situation. Here's a few specific sentences that are badly in need of context:
"Presenters at the MIT event estimated that 3000 published studies from scientists around the world have contributed to the growing canon of evidence...."
I find Anderson's use of the word "canon" here interesting; it implies that something is established beyond question, which cold fusion most certainly is not. More to the point, this is a misleading statement, since very few of those 3000 papers were published in peer-reviewed journals. Certainly some of them were, but this fact should be noted, even just in passing. And don't just take my word for it. Per WaPo's Weinberger, "[T]he most credible cold fusion advocates concede that the vast majority of those papers are of poor quality." She even cites a supporter who calls the collection of papers "toxic waste." That's hardly a resounding endorsement; it certainly wouldn't qualify as a "canon."
"Verification of these controversial results is not the problem -- many labs around the world have reproduced parts of the results many times."
Again, this is misleading. It's true that over the past two decades, there have been reports of what appear to be excess bursts of energy in various experiments. But even Hagelstein admits to continued experimental inconsistency; some "results" have never been reproduced. Cold fusion's claims of verification are based on a bizarre kind of statistical rationale: sure, most of the results are negative, but they have now amassed such a statistically significant sampling of instances of claimed excess heat that at least some of those results must be valid, and any lack of the effect is due to flawed experiments. The WaPo article cites esteemed nuclear physicist Richard Garwin as a source for its dismissal of that tortured argument: "It's absurd to claim that experiments that seem to support cold fusion are valid, while those that don't are flawed." There are a few more mainstream scientists around these days who are willing to concede there might be something of marginal interest going on, but most remain unconvinced that it's bona fide cold fusion. And hardly anyone holds out any hope of it ever becoming a viable energy source.
"Compared to the warehouses worth of billion-dollar gadgetry needed to run 'hot fusion,' cold fusion research is cheap to fund. And yet cash is the primary limiting factor holding the research back."
It's disingenuous to dismiss cold fusion's difficulties as nothing more than a funding problem. Its biggest problem is the lack of reproducibility, even in the experiments of the most respected members of the cold fusion community. McKubre, for instance, admits to Weinberger that out of 50,000 hours of experiments, only 50 recorded instances have occurred that "unmistakably" produced excess heat. That's just not good enough. Science must maintain its integrity -- if only to counter the inevitable human frailties of its practitioners -- and that means we can't lower the bar of standards for reproducibility just because palladium is a "quixotic" metal, riddled with unpredictable, unevenly distributed impurities. Seriously, that's one of the main excuses given by cold fusion advocates as to why they get such inconsistent results. Materials issues are a bitch, experimentally, it's true, but cold fusion is not the only field faced with overcoming those challenges, so why should its experimental inconsistencies be excused on those grounds?
As for that "excess heat," it's nothing to get excited about just yet, since it's a very small amount indeed. Anderson quotes cold fusionist Mitchell Swartz as saying the question now is not whether the experiments can generate excess heat, "It's can we can get a kilowatt? Can we get a small car moving on this stuff?" Heck, if they could just boil some water, that would be a tremendous accomplishment. The late Scottish physicist Douglas Morrison was one of the rare skeptical attendees of the annual cold fusion conferences until his death inn 2001. Each year, he would listen to the extravagant claims, then stand and make a simple request: "Please can I have a cup of tea?" It was a bit cheeky of him, but he made his point: cold fusion talks a good game, yet even the simplest applied energy task remains well beyond its reach.
And what of the implied vast scientific conspiracy to squelch further research and kill the field entirely (perhaps to ensure that the major investments in hot fusion research don't become obsolete)? The "evidence" for that is mostly anecdotal hearsay -- i.e., not true evidence at all. Science undeniably has its politics, its bitter rivalries, petty jealousies, and its turf wars. There's some hefty egos involved, and feelings tend to run a bit high on both sides of the controversy. Scientists aren't always very polite in their disagreements, either. On the whole, though, cooler heads ultimately prevail in the public sphere, however much heated rhetoric is flung around in private.
I've personally heard physicists dismiss Hagelstein as an embarrassment to MIT. (Hagelstein has countered by describing the mainstream scientific community as a closed-minded "mafia," that only publishes the work of the official "family" of scientists.) Caltech physicist Steven Koonin famously denounced Pons and Fleischmann as "delusional" at an APS April meeting, and Princeton physicist Will Happer has described them as "incompetent boobs." Happer also objected strenuously to Robert Jahn's controversial PEAR project in psychic research, solely on scientific grounds. Yet he has repeatedly stated, on the record, that however much he disagreed with Jahn's science, he supported his right to conduct that research. I'll indulge in a bit of conjecture here myself: I suspect that despite Happer's harsh disdain for the scientific caliber of Pons and Fleischmann, and his skepticism of the validity of the field in general, he would still support the right of cold fusion scientists to conduct their research. (He just doesn't think the government needs to pay for it.)
The ever-irascible Bob Park, author of Voodoo Science and editor of the weekly
electronic newsletter, What's New, has been one of the fiercest of cold
fusion's often-vitriolic critics. Yet he has corresponded with many cold fusion scientists over the years, and welcomed the second DOE review. He still thinks it's most likely a bunch of bad science, but conceded to the WaPo, "Maybe there is... some funny reaction going on.... If there is, it may solve some puzzles, but it won't be important." Also quoted is Hagelstein's MIT colleague, Milly Dresselhaus: "I think scientists should be open-minded. Historically, many things get overturned with time." She stops short of recommending federal funding, however, especially in these cash-strapped times: "When you feel poor, you don't invest in long shots. This is kind of a long shot."
Cold fusion has had its day in court, so to speak, not once, but twice, and some skeptical scientists have been willing to listen to a few of the more reputable claims. Garwin was a member of the 1989 DOE review panel, and subsequently visited McKubre's lab at SRI in 1993. Far from dismissing the work outright, he praised the lab for its "serious and competent work," and found no huge blunder in the experimental setups. (That's something that sets McKubre's work apart from the vast majority of cold fusion experiments, which caused Garwin to gripe to the WaPo, "People who can't do a good sophomore experiment are suddenly free to suggest that the discrepancies in their results come from unexplained, basic, earth-shaking, heat-producing phenomena.") But he did identify any number of possible problems with the setup, as well as some measurement errors, concluding bluntly, "Did not support any finding of 'excess heat.'"
In short, individual scientists might have indulged in harsh derision about cold fusion over the years, and promising young physicists like Hagelstein have indeed paid a professional price for their choice of research. (Note that it was Hagelstein's choice.) That doesn't amount to a cabal-like conspiracy n the part of the scientific establishment -- a notion that provides the linchpin of an emerging "cold fusion mythology" being fostered by -- among other things -- unquestioning articles in popular science magazines, and it has little basis in reality. The scientific community as a whole has not unfairly dismissed the claims: it simply remains unconvinced by the erratic evidence that has been presented to it. Should cold fusion advocates one day beat the odds and provide truly reproducible, compelling evidence for low-energy nuclear reactions, the stodgy old scientific establishment might grumble a bit, but ultimately it will accept those findings and alter its theories accordingly. Because that's what the scientific method is all about.
Perhaps the most telling anecdote comes at the end of the WaPo article, where McKubre cites the multiple pop culture references to cold fusion as evidence that cold fusion is losing its stigma as a suspect pseudoscience. In fictional worlds, he insists, cold fusion is a fact. "It's a fantasy fact. That's nearly as good as reality." Here's a free media-savvy tip for scientists: That's the kind of inane statement you never want to make on the record to a reporter, particularly when you're being grilled about a controversial subject like cold fusion. In this case, it serves no purpose other than to lend credence to Park's assertion earlier in the article that cold fusion's advocates want to believe the world is a certain way, when there simply isn't sufficient evidence to support what they so dearly want to believe.
I like science fiction and fantasy as much as the next person, and I'll be the first to trumpet the fact that real world science feeds off sci-fi to design new technologies and gain inspiration, before inspiring sci-fi authors with new fundamental breakthroughs that spark their creativity in turn. It's the perfect symbiotic relationship. But that's a far cry from claiming that because something is "real" in a cartoon universe, it's only a matter of time before real-world scientists make similar breakthroughs. While writing The Physics of the Buffyverse, I concluded that the most basic mechanism in that fictional world was an infinite supply of extra "mystical energy" that allowed for phenomena that would be impossible in our universe. But I didn't extrapolate that observation to conclude that someday we, too, would have access to a similar energy source and scientists just needed to identify it and figure out how to tap into it. Because the Buffyverse is a fantasy world, and we don't live in a fantasy world. Quod erat demonstratum, or, more colloquially: Duh, squared.